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'Tiger geek' Rory McIlroy set to tee-off with his hero

James Corrigan

The last time Rory McIlroy accompanied Tiger Woods on 18 holes in the Arabian Desert he was a 16-year-old amateur who was forced to borrow a sports photographer's camera and bib to get close to his hero. Six years on, all the lenses were destined to be trained on the Ulsterman.

The 7.40am tee-off time was "drawn" with prime-time on the West Coast of America in mind. Luke Donald, the world No 1, completes perhaps the most alluring first-round three-ball in the history of regular European Tour events. Certainly there has never been better in January.

The world-ranking pecking order is one gauge of this trio's standing, but in terms of celebrity the appearance fees are just as telling. The man ranked 25th in the game is receiving $1.5m (£964,000), the world No 3 is on $600,000 while Donald, adjudged the best player in the sport, is on $500,000. That's $2.6m between them before they hit a ball. For McIlroy those days as a pretend David Bailey seem a long, long time ago.

"Yeah, I received an invite to the Dubai De0sert Classic in 2006 and remember going out to watch Tiger after I'd missed the cut in the morning," said McIlroy. "The only way I could get inside the ropes was to commandeer a camera."

As it was a learning experience. Woods won that year, as he did most of the time in those pre-scandal days, while McIlroy went away to continue his own obliteration of the non-paid ranks. As a self-confessed "Tiger geek" McIlroy waited until his chance finally came to partner the 14-time major winner. It came only 13 months ago, at the Chevron World Challenge, but so much has changed in that period that McIlroy has been transformed from quivering starlet to major champion. That's what gave this pairing such fascination.

"I was nervous when I played with Tiger, but I was bound to be," he said. "After all, when you grow up watching a man win title after title and achieve things people thought weren't possible then you are bound to be awestruck. But since then I have got to know Tiger and feel relaxed in his company. I won't be nervous, just excited to start the season. It's going to get the juices flowing."

Donald will be similarly unintimidated. In 2006 he had his own front-row seat to Tiger's domination when partnering him in the final round of the USPGA Championship at Medinah. Woods shot a 68 to win the Wanamaker Trophy, Donald shot a 74 to remain a wannabe. In the respects of the majors he still is, despite being the most consistent player in the world by far, having finished in the top 10 in 24 of 32 tournaments played in 2011.

"I am a much more experienced player now," Donald said. His form also happens to be on a different level and what a beginning to the season this would be if he could validate his place on top of the heap with a victory at the Abu Dhabi Championship.

However, the problem may not be Woods, or indeed McIlroy, who has finished 2nd-3rd-5th-11th in four outing on this layout, but Martin Kaymer. The German won last year by eight shots to add to an astonishing record which now reads played four, won three, second once.

"There's just something about this place I really, really like. I can't wait to get started," said Kaymer, who won so stylishly at the WGC HSBC Champions event in Shanghai in November.

Kaymer is part of the afternoon marquee three-ball, which also features the world No 2, Lee Westwood, and the resurgent Sergio Garcia. Westwood is perhaps avoided for betting purposes here as he has been working so hard on his fitness and putting that he will likely need the run. But as far as the campaign goes, his manager is in no doubt.

"I would be amazed if this doesn't prove Lee's most successful season to date," said Chubby Chandler. "I wouldn't be at all surprised if he won two majors. Because once he wins the first the second will follow pretty quickly."

Abu Dhabi tee-offs

Selected players, UK time:

03.40: L Donald (Eng), R McIlroy (NI), T Woods (US)

03.50: J Day (Aus), A Quiros (Sp), D Clarke (NI)

04.00: C Montgomerie (Sco), M Manassero (It), A Hansen (Den)

07.55: M A Jimenez (Sp), G McDowell (NI), S Dyson (Eng)

08.05: L Westwood (Eng), S Garcia (Sp), M Kaymer (Ger)

08.15: C Schwartzel (SA), P Harrington (Irl), T Bjorn (Den)

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