x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Rory McIlroy ready to take on Tiger's mantle

19th hole According to Colin Montgomerie, Europe's Ryder Cup captain, there is only one player - aside from Tiger Woods - that spectators will turn out in their droves to see these days.

At a promotional event this week held at Yas Marina Circuit, an elfin English child was asked if he played golf. His answer, like most children's answers, was both innocent and honest: "I don't play," said the boy quietly. "My dad plays... but he doesn't hit it like Tiger Woods." "I bet he doesn't," replied the questioner, with a glint in his eye and a devious smirk.

And that is what it has digressed to: Tiger Woods, a man who just six months ago symbolised golf more than anyone and anything else, has been forced to go into hiding; reduced to the butt of crude jokes. Of course, the 14-time major winner will return to the spotlight, it is simply a matter of where and when. Whether it is before the Masters, as predicted by Sergio Garcia, or appearing, as Geoff Ogilvy suggested, on an Oprah Winfrey-type chat show, nobody knows. But he is only 34 years old and his hunger will assure he gets back on the course; Tiger wants more trophies.

The PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem backed Woods' decision to take an "indefinite break" from the sport, despite being well aware that a tournament lacking Tiger almost guarantees a drop in television viewing figures. Finchem, understandably, also added that he is looking forward to Woods' return. Until then, the American golf industry will be looking for a fresh face to carry the Tour's torch. And there is little doubt who fits the bill.

According to Colin Montgomerie, Europe's Ryder Cup captain, there is only one player - aside from Woods - that spectators will turn out in their droves to see these days. He sports long shaggy locks, a Northern Irish lilt and won his first European Tour title last year in Dubai at the Dubai Desert Classic. He is ranked No 10 in the world, pushed Lee Westwood all the way in the inaugural Race to Dubai and has already graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. All this despite being just 20-years-old. He is Rory McIlroy and he is leading the chase this weekend at the Abu Dhabi Championship.

Having decided to split his time this season between the European Tour and its American counterpart, McIlroy plans to make his bow on the PGA Tour next month when he takes part in the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play. The popular youngster, who has already earned more than ?4.5 million (Dh23.3m), will arrive in Dove Mountain, Arizona, chasing the majority share of a US$8.5m (Dh31m) purse. And while Woods' self-imposed exile will undoubtedly improve the Ulsterman's chances of success, McIlroy will also have to battle a burden of expectation as well as maintain his focus with a hive of incessant hype swirling around him throughout the four days.

Ever an amiable personality, he can also expect to draw one of the largest galleries of the tournament - much like he did at the National Course here yesterday, despite the fact he started the day tied for eighth. The number of supporters following McIlroy, Ian Poulter and Chris Wood comfortably outnumbered that of the overnight leading pack of Australian Rick Kulacz, Sweden's Peter Hanson and former world No 2 Sergio Garcia.

Whether, once on the other side of the Atlantic, McIlroy can immediately find his feet and focus remains to be seen. He clearly has the potential and is showing it regularly, but he knows himself that he cannot be bracketed alongside Tiger until he starts consistently winning titles to complement last year's Dubai Desert Classic victory, which remains his only Tour win. @Email:gmeenaghan@thenational.ae