Rory McIlroy in push for golf's summit
Exactly three years after making his professional debut on American soil at the Accenture Match Play Championship, Rory McIlroy returns to Dove Mountain today with the summit of world golf within his grasp.
Victory on Sunday in the season's first World Golf Championship would propel McIlroy past Luke Donald to World No 1, provided the ever-steady Englishman goes no further than the second round.
Though he's made no secret of his ambition to make it to No 1 at some stage this spring, McIlroy insists his opportunity to do so this week will not intrude on his thoughts heading into today's first round with Accenture Match Play 'rookie' George Coetzee (25) of South Africa.
Yet for those who watched McIlroy, then a waifish teenager fresh from his first European Tour victory in Dubai, win American hearts and minds as he swept into the quarter-finals here in 2009, it's fascinating to note how much he has grown in the world game, especially in the eight months since his runaway US Open success at Congressional.
Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, who brilliantly birdied the final four holes at Augusta last April to don the Green Jacket after McIlroy's meltdown, spoke eloquently yesterday of the difference winning a Major makes to a player. He explained that other players "look at you differently." More importantly, it also changed how Schwartzel regarded himself.
"I took so much self-confidence from Augusta," he said. "After winning a Major, you no longer feel you need to show anyone who you are or prove yourself. Now when I go out there, I can concentrate fully on playing the game."
McIlroy's consistency and confidence has been mind-blowing since the summer. After his hiccup at Sandwich and a suffocating visit to the Irish Open, he injured his wrist at the US PGA. Yet in 10 tournaments since, McIlroy has won twice and registered seven top-five finishes as he has soared into second place in the rankings.
Becoming Ireland's first World No 1 and, at age 22, the youngest since 21-year-old Tiger Woods first assumed the position in June 1997, really is just a matter of time for McIlroy.
His past two outings at the Ritz-Carlton Club have not been good to McIlroy. He pipped Kevin Na in the first round in 2010 only to lose on the 20th hole to Oliver Wilson. After eliminating Jonathan Byrd last year, he was hammered by Ben 'Super Slow-Mo' Crane.
Yet McIlroy exudes an entirely different aura now and it would be a major surprise if Coetzee took his scalp today, regardless of the fickle nature of 18-hole match play.
The biggest obstacle between the Ulsterman and the top of the world is Donald himself, the defending Accenture Match Play champion.
The trademark consistency which carried him to last year's historic money list double in Europe and the US also makes Donald difficult to shake off in match play.
World No 3 Lee Westwood can also go to No 1 with victory, provided Donald proceeds no further than the quarter-finals. However, failing to make it to Friday in 11 appearances at the Accenture inspires little confidence in Westwood's prospects of following fellow Englishmen Ian Poulter and Donald into the winner's enclosure next Sunday, despite recent hot form.
Tiger Woods, meanwhile, won the most recent of his three Accenture titles in 2008, but no longer intimidates opponents, which is more significant in match play.
While all seven US Tour events in 2012 have been won by Americans, one suspects that Europe's domination on Dove Mountain is set to continue this week.
Donald, McIlroy, Westwood and 2011 finalist Martin Kaymer are the top four seeds, while there are few better match players than last Sunday's 64-shot sensation in Riviera, Sergio Garcia, or Ryder Cup clincher Graeme McDowell.
G-Mac has a fascinating first-round showdown with 2009 PGA winner YE Yang, his conqueror in the third round last year, while Darren Clarke, winner of this title in 2000, hopes to upset the first-round odds against America's World No 15 Nick Watney.
Yet as we wait for the first salvoes to be fired, McIlroy's very much 'The Man' on Dove Mountain.
Accenture Match Play Championship, Live, Sky Sports 1, 5.0