Rory McIlroy gets a break from the spotlight
As Tiger Woods knocked Rory McIlroy off the top of the world with a vintage victory at the Arnie Palmer Invitational, the young Ulsterman's decision to skip Bay Hill looked very wise indeed.
Trying to beard the rampant Tiger on one of his favourite hunting grounds would have placed undue pressure on McIlroy as the 23-year-old recovers confidence in his golf game following a difficult start to his season.
Even being relegated to No 2 after 32 continuous weeks at the top of the world rankings has a bright side for McIlroy.
“It'll take the heat off him,” said NBC golf pundit Johnny Miller yesterday. “Set him free again.”
McIlroy's good friend and fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell agreed, adding: “Not being No 1 will give Rory a bit of a break from the spotlight and time to find his game again. He will bounce back. He has too much talent and it sets things up for a great battle at the top week-to-week.”
The Portrush man also expects McIlroy to be inspired by Tiger's return to the top of the global game for the first time since October 2010. “Rory's been No 1 for a while and having this kind of challenge definitely will gee him up and help him refocus.”
It was difficult not to sympathise with Palmer last week as he expressed “surprise” and “disappointment” at McIlroy's decision not to play Bay Hill, especially after the Holywood starlet emphatically dismissed talk of a crisis with his new Nike clubs and his golf swing with last Sunday week's sizzling final-round 65 at Doral.
Yet with Woods back in such sensational form, hindsight suggests it would have been a grave error for McIlroy to engage in a high-profile head-to-head with golf's most voracious predator before his own rehabilitation was complete.
Should McIlroy's star continue to rise at this week's Shell Houston Open, the four rounds he plays at Redstone, not to mention next week's two-day mission to Haiti as UNICEF Ireland's honorary ambassador, will gird him for April's battle royal with Woods at the Masters.
How thrilling it would be to see the most irresistibly gifted golfer of his generation, McIlroy, take on the game's most immovable monolith, Woods, at Augusta National.
Make no mistake, Tiger's back at his pomp.
Belfast Telegraph Digital