McIlroy well set for Sawgrass challenge

Rory McIlroy recalls being starstruck the first time he met Tiger Woods – and more nervous than he was on being introduced to US president Barack Obama in March.

Seven years came between the two events, the Northern Irishman having grown from a 15-year-old with dreams of making it big one day to world number one.

Now, heading into this week’s Players Championship at Sawgrass in Florida, it is Woods who wishes he could be as consistently good as McIlroy.

Top of the rankings for a third time after his play-off defeat to fellow 23-year-old Rickie Fowler at Quail Hollow on Sunday, the Holywood golfer has only twice failed to finish in the top five since last August.

And while the pair both disappointed by coming only 40th in last month’s Masters, Woods followed that up by missing the cut last Friday.

Hence yet more questions about his swing changes under Sean Foley, his coach for the past 20 months, at his press conference yesterday.

Not surprisingly, the 14-major champion played down the situation – and quite rightly pointed out that although his form has been erratic he did win the Chevron World Challenge in December and the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.

“I’ve got two wins in four months – not too bad,” he said.

“Unfortunately the last two tournaments I’ve played in weren’t that great. No big deal. We’ll just continue working and try and put it together this week.”

At least he and McIlroy should not find it hard to improve on their most recent visits to the sport’s richest event, which offers over £1m (€1.2m) to the winner and nearly £5.9m (€7.3m) in total prize money.

Woods pulled out during the final round two years ago – he was nowhere near the lead at the time – and last May played nine holes in a six-over-par 42 before quitting with a leg injury that kept him out of action until August.

McIlroy has played the tournament only twice in his career, missed the cut both times and last year decided to give it a miss.

Now he is back as a member of the PGA Tour and back as number one, although Luke Donald and Lee Westwood – paired together for the first two rounds tomorrow and Friday – hope to change that again soon.

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