Tiger Woods enters the season in an unfamiliar position of playing second fiddle to world No 1 Rory McIlroy in measturements of public perception and results on the golf course, writes Steve Elling.
Tiger Woods focus solely on his own game, not Rory McIlroy
Tiger Woods described it as a generation gap. Whether he proves right or wrong in terms of totality, he got the gap part absolutely correct.
For the first time in at least 15 years, the game's biggest drawing card and most-recognisable figure enters a season in a uniquely unfamiliar position - riding shotgun, clearly separated from the top position in both the measurement metrics and public perception.
Having won five times last year, including a record four times with Woods in the field in US PGA Tour competition, the new No 1 is the 23-year-old Irishman Rory McIlroy, who sits one notch above Woods in the world pecking order.
The Southern Californian, for the first time since his massive swing overhaul in 1998, is a clear numero dos across the board. Even during the 30-month victory drought that followed his marital scandal, Woods was never really supplanted in the collective consciousness, since most figured that his abdication was temporary and that he would get his act together at some point.
Then McIlroy did likewise — and then some — in the same time 2012 frame.
Flying high with major-championship wins in each of the past two seasons, McIlroy dually tops the world rankings and list of tournament favourites for events such as this week's Abu Dhabi Championship.
While he gripped the helm with both hands for years, Woods on Thursday is starting his 18th professional season.
In classic US television terms, Rory is the Skipper and Tiger is Gilligan.
After all these years of mostly beating the likes of Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els, all now in their 40s, Woods is being attacked from the rear.
"It's a generational thing now," said Woods, who hasn't won a major since 2008. "So now you've got these guys in their 20s. It just means I have been around longer."
It was a remarkable ride, and it would be unwise to pronounce it over. While McIlroy shot past Woods last year with five global victories to win the top-player honours on the European and PGA tours, recall that in mid-2011, Woods was both gimpy and ranked outside the top 50. After three wins last season, not to mention a third-place finish in Abu Dhabi, he is back to No 2.
As ever, Woods said he would keep his eyes on the prize, not the wallet of the one man ensconced directly in front of him. It will not change his mindset one iota, he said yesterday.
Whether it will affect his ego, well, stay tuned.
Somewhat incredibly, in his first public appearance of 2013 yesterday, the first three questions posed to Woods related directly to his new Nike stablemate. As much as anything, that screams volumes about his new underdog status.
"The whole idea is to get better," said Woods, 37. "That's what I am trying to do each and every year is get better. If I get better, I am going to win golf tournaments.
"I can't control what any other players do out here. I can't influence what they do."
Well, short of going all Tonya Harding on the kid.
Speaking of nasty leg issues, Woods made it through 2012 with only one bad episode, when he withdrew in the middle of the final round at Doral because of an Achilles matter.
As much as any development in his personal or professional life, that has him looking ahead to 2013 and nearly salivating.
"Other than that, it was a good year, physically," Woods said. "I was excited about being able to play a full schedule. I had not done that in a long time  ... so for me, it was a big year in that regard.
"Consequently, I won a few times and am really excited about going into this year."
It will not take long to take a quick measure of the man, either. He is paired with McIlroy and three-time Abu Dhabi winner Martin Kaymer in the first two rounds.
The Ulsterman, having just announced a multi-year deal with Nike worth an estimated US$20 million to US$25 million (Dh73.4m to Dh91.75m) annually according to unconfirmed reports, is clearly the marked man now. How much has the landscape changed in the past 12 months since Woods and McIlroy played their first sanctioned professional round together in Abu Dhabi?
McIlroy, aware that his status has changed if not by virtue of his ranking then his new nine-digit financial strata, is mirroring his childhood idol as it relates to the psychological burdens of being the top man on the pole.
Then again, he's about to be splashed all over televisions globally as a Nike pitchman and his Q rating will be going through the roof, so we'll see how it plays out.
In some fashion, he surely understands on some level that he needs to validate the money and attention being directed his way.
"I have always had high expectations of myself, and every time I come into a tournament, I want to feel like I have a chance to win," McIlroy shrugged. "If people think I have more of a chance to win than anyone else, that's fine.
"It's no different."
That might be wishful thinking. For the first time this week, the savvy young Irishman sounded just a tad naive.
What Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship
When Thursday to Sunday
Where Abu Dhabi Golf Club
Prize money US$2.7 million (Dh9.92m)
Defending champion Robert Rock
Debut year 2006
Record attendance 82,000 over four days last year
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE