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The Tiger-Rory question is this week's big one

By Neville Leck Last updated: 23rd August 2012

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An confident Rory McIlroy on track to his PGA victory

An confident Rory McIlroy on track to his PGA victory

Almost certainly golf's biggest question this week is how will Rory McIlroy come out of his first-ever US PGA Tour pairing with Tiger Woods in the first two rounds of The Barclays.

The 23-year-old Northern Ireland golfing icon has played alongside plenty of the USA's biggest guns in his three years on the PGA Tour, including Phil Mickelson (eight times), Steve Stricker (seven times) and Bubba Watson (six times).

He's also linked up more than once with Jim Furyk, Keegan Bradley, the American he succeeded when he won the US PGA Championship earlier this month, and Ricky Fowler, currently one of the US's highest profile young guns.

But he's never been grouped with Tiger in an official US PGA Tour event so naturally the biggest question hanging over the first two days of The Barclays is how the World newest World No 1 will go against a man who right now is the World No 3, but who at one time during his star-studded career looked as if he might never relinquish the World No 1 spot until he packed up and retired.

In the past Woods has built up a fearsome reputation for being something of an intimidating partner and not too many of the young Turks who have hoped to topple him in face-to-face confrontations have come out on top, a notable exception being unheralded Rich Beem, who held him off to win the 2002 US PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Minnesota in 2002.

What are the chances of McIlroy being able to do the same sort of thing this week at tough Bethpage Black?

In the light of changing circumstances, I would have to say better than they have ever been. Life has changed a good deal for both of them in the last couple of years.

For while the Tiger has had some of his sharpest teeth drawn by injuries and his sensationalised, extra-marital activities and subsequent divorce a few year's back and can no longer claim to bestride world golf like a Colossus, McIlroy has grown from a fledgling of great potential into the real McCoy.

With two majors under his belt before his 24 birthday, he is already in the same sort of league at this age as Woods and Jack Nicklaus, who, with 18 titles, is still the world's most successful major winner.

Outside of the US PGA Tour, McIlroy has so far failed to get the better of Woods on the couple of occasions they have played together.

Woods (70-69-66) edged McIlroy (67-72-68) by two shots when they were grouped together in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship early this year and he also came out on top in 2010 in the silly-season Chevron World Challenge which he hosts, in this case shooting a 66 to the Ulster youngster's 70.

But after emerging from a mini slump and winning the US PGA Championship two weeks back as decisively as he won last year's US Open - by all of eight shots in each case - McIlroy has clearly showed he is not going to be one of those one-major winners who quickly disappear, and his two minor setbacks against Woods is more than likely to be water under the bridge this week.

And this especially in view of the fact that McIlroy not only "enjoys playing with Tiger" and expects to "have a good time out there" but also because he has found that playing with the nemesis of so many young guns "really focuses you from the get-go".

"I feel every time I've played with Tiger, he's sort of brought the best out of me," he told the media this week,.

But you can't write-off Woods as easily as that - and not only because he must be smiling at weather forecasts that say the wind should be relatively mild all week.

Unlike McIlroy, he didn't grow up on windy links courses.

More so I'd say it's because the world's highest paid golfing professional (more than $58m so far this year) is not easily going to make way to a man being seen by many as the 21st Century's new face of golf.

Before 36-year-old Woods even thinks about quitting golf, he wants to take his 14 major wins past Nicklaus's record 18 and he must know that he won't be easily able to do that if he allows McIlroy to get up too much steam.

I believe The Tiger will see this week's confrontation with McIlroy as a key to his future plans and come out roaring.

But the question is this: Will it all be enough to stop a hugely talented youngster, who not only is hitting his drives further than Woods, can match the American's legendary iron play and right now seems to have the edge with his putter, but who is happy with his life and will have gained immense confidence from his PGA Championship heroics?

It all makes for intriguing possibilities.

For the record, the two, along with in-form Zach Johnson, The No 4 in the FedEx Cup standings who is joining the Nos 1 and 2 because No 3 Justin Dufner has opted to take a break this week, are set to tee-off at the 10th at 8.16am on Thursday and from the first at 1.06 pm on Friday (local eastern times)

Neville Leck



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