Rory McIlroy flees from comparisons with Tiger Woods but the world number one isn’t just playing like the old Tiger, he sounds like him too.
As the 14-time Major winner limped out of the WGC-Cadillac Championship with a left Achilles tendon injury that will fuel speculation about his long-term future just a month before the Masters, McIlroy produced a stunning display reminiscent of Woods in his prime.
Perhaps the only difference between the two is that McIlroy didn’t turn his Sunday charge into a victory, but the 22-year-old still showed plenty of Tiger traits as he grabbed third place before returning to Augusta in search of Masters redemption.
Tied for 28th and 10 shots off the lead at halfway, McIlroy briefly entertained thoughts of a 59 on Saturday but walked off feeling “disappointed” with a 65 that left him eight adrift of Bubba Watson.
On Sunday he closed to a 67 but felt deflated, having got to within a shot of the lead with six holes to play, to finish third behind Justin Rose.
“I’ll look back on it tomorrow and look back at what a good weekend it was,” McIlroy said. “Eight shots behind, even to just give myself a chance to win was a pretty good effort. I just couldn’t close it out the way I wanted to.”
The upside for the 22-year-old is that he soared to the top of the FedEx Cup standings and the US money list with earnings of $2.39 million (€1.81m) from just three starts.
And with Woods in trouble with his Achilles once more, the bookies have made McIlroy the clear favourite for the Masters too. William Hill has pushed Woods’ price from 9/2 to 13/2, with Mcllroy shortening to 4/1 from 9/2. It’s little wonder, given what we’ve seen from the Irishman over the past six months — three wins (one unofficial) and 12 top-five finishes from his last 13 starts.
The world No 1 could win if he hits his best form but he also knows he can challenge for victories with his B game — just like Woods in his prime.
“Even when I don’t feel like I am playing my best, the biggest improvement in my game is being able to turn those 71s and 72s into 69s or 68s and keep yourself in a tournament,” McIlroy said on Sunday.
But while all is sunny in McIlroy’s world, Woods’ latest failed comeback casts serious doubts over his ability to sustain his career long enough to threaten Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 Major wins.
“He just said he’s got to be done. It looked like he was in some pain,” playing partner Webb Simpson said as Woods gave up after striping a drive down the 12th fairway on Sunday.
The closing 62 Woods shot to finish second to McIlroy in the Honda Classic the previous Sunday might as well have been ancient history.
He said he plans to have the Achilles “evaluated sometime early next week”, but while he’s doing that McIlroy will be honing his game with coach Michael Bannon near Woods’ home in Jupiter before heading back to Miami to watch girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki play a tournament next week.
McIlroy hopes Woods will be fit for a potential Masters showdown, of course.
“He can spark an interest in golf that no one else can and it’s great to see him back and in contention. I’d love to have a lot of battles with him coming down the stretch, and it would be great to be able to do that at Augusta if he’s healthy and plays well and if I can get myself into that position again.”
McIlroy could lose his world No 1 ranking if Luke Donald wins this week’s Transitions Championship in Tampa. But he also knows he’s got the game and the hunger to get it back at the Masters. Whether Woods is there to stop him is another question.
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