x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Time waits for no man, not even Tiger Woods

McIlroy will be one of two golfers in a three-ball in Abu Dhabi who now look down on Woods from the loftiest echelons of the world rankings.

Rory Mcllroy plays a shot during the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship  Pro-Am.
Rory Mcllroy plays a shot during the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship Pro-Am.

Amazing how time flies, Rory McIlroy mused yesterday. And well he might.

Back in 2006, the Northern Irishman arrived in the UAE after scoring a sponsor's invitation to play at the Dubai Desert Classic as a 16-year-old amateur.

He went round in a nondescript three-ball, watched by a gallery comprising his mother, father, and few others besides, shot a brace of 72s and missed the halfway cut. Not that that was a problem: he was just happy to be there.

He loved playing in the tournament, not solely because it meant being in the same field as Tiger Woods and the rest of golf's glitterati, but because it was easy to relax off the course. Best holiday ever!

He stayed as guests of friends at a villa in Jumeirah, meaning his time away from the Majlis was spent playing with the family's pet dog, and on his mate's PlayStation. Perhaps they played Tiger Woods PGA Tour '06. And maybe he opted to be the man himself, especially as there was no player called McIlroy on the options menu just yet.

Life has changed much in just under six years since. Last year, he shared the cover of the latest edition of the Woods video game.

And he will be one of two players in a three-ball going around The National Course in Abu Dhabi this morning who now look down on Tiger from the loftiest echelons of the world rankings.

It is safe to assume the McIlroy, Woods and Luke Donald grouping is the most high-calibre match ever to tread the fairways of a course in the UAE.

Were it not for the fact they go off at an alarm-clock testing tee time of 7.40am today, it would probably attract the biggest gallery, too.

Mr and Mrs McIlroy can expect a little more company this time around, and their son will not need to come up with any cunning ruses to get himself inside the ropes today.

"It surprises me so much how fast the years go by," McIlroy, now 22, said yesterday. "I played in the morning [at the 2006 Classic] on the Thursday, shot 72 and Tiger was out in the afternoon.

"I went out to follow him and stole one of the camera guy's cameras so I was able to get inside the ropes."

Since Woods started his fall -which he is now showing signs of arresting - his place at the head of the sport has been assumed by Donald, while McIlroy is threatening to supplant him as the face of it.

They may not have stopped to wave to him on the way past, but McIlroy, for one, incurred the ire of the American, after saying he would be happy to take him on in his current form.

Bygones have remained in the past, however, on the evidence of this week.

On Tuesday afternoon they went out to play nine holes of practice together, having got talking at a promotional photo shoot.

This is another sign that the Northern Irishmen feels comfortable in the company of the man who has done a better line in intimidation than anyone else for so long.

"It's not just playing with Tiger," Donald said. "It is the fact he brings a bigger crowd.

"I have played with him quite a few times in the past and that feeling of feeling intimidated certainly dissipates."

This may be Martin Kaymer's patch, but even he has noticed a change already this year.

"When [Woods] came on the putting green earlier, there are more people around you all of a sudden," the champion said. "He has a very special aura."

An awe-invoking aura, according to McIlroy.

"The first time I played with Tiger I was a little nervous," said McIlroy, who insists the topics of conversation on their Tuesday practice round did not venture much further than the intricacies of putting.

"You've watched this guy on TV your whole life, winning majors and doing things that no one thought was possible. So you're going to be a little awestruck.

"Once I got to spend a little time with him and maybe have lunch with him a few times, you can sort of break the barrier down."

The number of people on the Woods side of that barrier remain few, not least among his fellow competitors, but McIlroy is happy with how the lands lies.

"I've only really gotten to know him over the past couple of years, but I've always felt like I have a pretty good relationship with him," McIlroy said.

"I think I feel pretty comfortable in his company. I feel like he feels pretty comfortable in mine. It is good."