CHARLIE MULQUEEN: Back to the range for McIlroy after below par Nike debut

THE new “Nike Chums” Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods remain the top two players in the world golf rankings in spite of missing the cut in last week’s Abu Dhabi Championship.

They now go their separate ways and do so with decidedly contrasting aspirations.

If the National Enquirer is to be believed, Woods is hopeful that his former wife Elin will return to the fold having been offered a guaranteed $200m in a pre-nuptial agreement. However, says the Enquirer, she’s holding out for $350m. It appears that Swedish beauty Elin, 33, recently split from her wealthy financier boyfriend, Jamie Dingman.

For now, though, Woods has made his way to San Diego for the $6million Farmers Insurance Open getting under way at Torrey Pines on Thursday. He has won six times over this beautiful cliff top course overlooking the Pacific Open including when he beat Rocco Mediate in a play-off for the 2009 US Open.

Not to be completely outdone by his great rival, Phil Mickelson has captured the title on three occasions. “Lefty” shot 17 under in the Humana Challenge in California at the weekend to suggest that his game is developing nicely at an early stage of the season. Even then, though, he did no better than a share of 37th, finishing eighth behind Brian Gay who defeated David Lingmerth and Charles Howell III in a play-off.

McIlroy has a far different priority to the two high-profile Americans given that his first tournament outing with his new Nike clubs proved such an anti-climax.

The fact that he saw fit to dump the putter and returned to the tried and trust Scotty Cameron after the first round pleading slow greens as the reason must be a serious source of concern to player and sponsor alike with Rory’s curt response to a reasonably phrased question on the subject totally out of character.

“I’m here to talk about my round and nothing else”, he grumped.

McIlroy plans to spend much of the next four weeks on the practice range becoming more familiar with the new clubs and won’t be seen in action again until the WGC Accenture World Match Play Championship in Arizona on February 20-24. After the Match Play, McIlroy will defend the Honda Classic followed by the WGC Cadillac World Championship, both in Florida, and the Shell Houston Open leading up to the Masters at Augusta on April 11-14.

Graeme McDowell (still 17th in the world ranking) is going ahead with his plan to take the best part of two months off. His first appearance since his magnificent victory in the Tiger Woods World Challenge in mid-December will come in the Northern Trust Los Angeles Open at Riviera on February 14-17. He will also take in the World Match Play, the Honda, WGC Cadillac and the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill before the Masters.

Pádraig Harrington has returned home after a fruitful couple of weeks in South Africa where he finished 4th in the Volvo Champions and 23rd in Abu Dhabi.

His next appearance will be in the Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Arizona, on Jan 31-Feb 3 followed a week later with his usual line-up alongside his great friend JP McManus in the Pebble Beach pro-am. Harrington has dropped two spots in the rankings from 48th to 50th.

The Irishmen in the field for this week’s Qatar Masters (which begins tomorrow and ends on Saturday) are Michael Hoey, Peter Lawrie, Paul McGinley and Gareth Maybin.

The second event in the “Desert Swing” has attracted a fine entry led by Justin Rose and Louis Oosthuizen, now 4th and 5th respectively in the world.

McGinley will also play in next week’s Dubai Desert Classic and appear regularly after that in the belief that he can carry out his Ryder Cup brief more effectively by performing on the same stage as the likely members of his team.

The personal touch may well give McGinley an important edge over his illustrious but ageing American adversary Tom Watson whose activities are confined largely to the US Champions Tour. Watson’s opportunities to get to know a bunch of players, the majority more than 20 years his junior, may be less than he would have liked.

Waterville’s David Higgins still awaits his first appearance on the European Tour since he regained his card at the Tour School in November. He entered for all three “Desert Swing” events but failed to gain a place. His first chance may now come in the Joburg Open on February 7-10.

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