| 18.5°C Belfast

Why Tiger Woods' return and battle for world number one could spark Rory McIlroy's return to form at Memorial Tournament

Close

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy will tee it up together in the first two rounds of the Memorial Tournament.

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy will tee it up together in the first two rounds of the Memorial Tournament.

Getty Images

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy will tee it up together in the first two rounds of the Memorial Tournament.

The golfing shutdown, it's safe to say, hasn't done Rory McIlroy any favours.

Before the PGA Tour was brought to an abrupt halt by the coronavirus pandemic in March, the world number one was on a run of seven consecutive top five finishes and looking like a first win of 2020 was never far from his grasp.

Fast forward three months out and, in his three tournaments back, McIlroy has yet to break the top 10.

But if there was a time to rediscover his spark then now wouldn't be a bad choice.

The return of spectators was originally due at this week's Memorial Tournament but has, unsurprisingly given the USA's persisting struggles to contain the virus, been shelved until 2021.

Nonetheless, with the year's first major, the USPGA Championship, now just three weeks away, there's a feeling that things are about to be ramped up on the PGA Tour.

Muirfield Village will feel a little different come Thursday morning.

The same venue hosted last week's Workday Charity Open but at this week's Memorial tournament, it welcomes the world's top five golfers.

That's significant for McIlroy because all four of the chasing pack - Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson and, admittedly unlikely as it is, Webb Simpson - could overhaul him to end the week on top of the rankings.

And then, of course, there's the Tiger factor.

The Big Cat is back in action for the first time since mid-February and, adding extra spice, he'll tee it up in the same feature group as McIlroy and Brooks Koepka.

It all adds up to a landmark week in McIlroy's season and one that, according to his former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, could well spark a return to form.

"He's a guy for the big occasion and I think that having Woods in the field this week will bring a bit more of a competitive edge to him," McGinley told Sky Sports.

"We're not seeing that his swing has all of a sudden gone poor or his putting has gone poor, he just doesn't seem to be on the edge mentally.

"I think when he has got the bit between his teeth and has something to prove, or when he has been discounted, is generally when he plays his best.

"The recent evidence of that is The Open last year when he missed the cut and then went on a great run after that, winning a couple of events as well as the FedExCup.

"There are people questioning him and wondering why he's not the same as he was before lockdown, but I think that will be good for him as that seems to be when he's at his best."

McIlroy's playing partner for the opening two days, Woods has played only twice this year, finishing in the top 10 at the Farmers Insurance Open in January before struggling at the Genesis Invitational a month later.

"We've seem him come back from a long break before," said McGinley, loath to write off the reigning Masters champion. "He did it last year, when he had a small procedure done, then came back and won straight away with the Zozo Championship in Japan.

"We've seen him come back and hit the ground running before, so you can't rule him out of anything, but I'd be surprised to see him contending this week. What he has really got his eye on is the PGA Championship and this is going to be good preparation for him."

Graeme McDowell is back in action, well accustomed to the Muirfield course after making the cut last week.

Then, of course, there's the Bryson DeChambeau interest. The American's new big-muscled, big-hitting style is catching the attention, not least of R&A Chief Executive Martin Slumbers.

He has admitted he's impressed by the ability of the 'true athlete' to maintain control of the ball with his increased muscle but has also hinted that technology rules might be brought in to limit the distance potential of not just DeChambeau, but other big hitters like McIlroy.

“My view is very much that golf is a game of skill,” he said. “It’s important to have a balance of skill and technology.”

That's for the future.

For Rory, this week is about facing down the Tiger and coming out still on top of the world.

Belfast Telegraph