ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Abu Dhabi will never be confused for Cherry Hills and regardless of how the cosmic tumblers fall on Sunday, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are still the game’s ultimate two-ball, but as destiny intervened late Friday it became apparent that Woods-Rory McIlroy is the premier undercard.
This week’s European Tour mixer isn’t the 1960 U.S. Open and it seems unlikely we will recall the 2012 season-opener in the same revered tones that we do that epic clash in Colorado that featured three of the game’s greats – Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus – converging on a single crossroad. Yet as Woods and McIlroy continue on their collision course it becomes fashionable to envision something special.
When Woods and McIlroy set out on Tuesday for a nine-hole practice round, an impromptu opportunity that was of Woods’ making, it was a footnote.
When they found themselves grouped together for Rounds 1 and 2 with Luke Donald, the threesome’s cellophane man despite his status as the world’s top-ranked player, it had all the markings of a contrived attempt at drama.
But when Saturday’s tee sheet was released late Friday it was equal parts surprising and suspicious that Woods and McIlroy, considered by many the game’s present and future, would be grouped again.
Instead of going off in twosomes on Saturday, which is tradition on most tours, the European Tour switched to threesomes. Officials made the change because of the limited daylight this time of year and a crowded (69 players made the cut) weekend field.
Those who subscribe to fate would say the grouping is destiny, a fortunate happenstance that delivers an extra level of intrigue. The more cynical would likely question the European Tour’s motives.
This was, after all, the first time the two had been grouped together in an official event. They were paired in Round 2 at the 2010 Chevron World Challenge, a matchup Woods won by four strokes, and were paired in a nine-hole exhibition match at the 2010 Memorial Tournament.
Through 36 holes, the two have played to a draw, McIlroy handicapped by a two-stroke penalty on No. 9 on Friday and Woods a belligerent putter on Day 1. Both overcame to move to 5 under and earn a spot alongside Robert Karlsson on Saturday.
“I enjoy his company and we have good chats around the course,” said McIlroy, who rallied on the back nine to sign for a 71. “It will be a good buzz.”
Among the 22-year-old’s gifts seems to be an ability for understatement. Saturday’s buzz promises to exceed simply “good.”
This collision course began in 2010 when the Ulsterman crossed the line, however innocently, when he was asked if he’d like to play Woods at the upcoming Ryder Cup in Wales.
“I would love to face him. Unless (Woods’) game rapidly improves in the next month or so, I think anyone in the European team would fancy his chances against him,” he said.
That duel never materialized, but McIlroy’s eight-shot masterpiece last year at Congressional only raised the expectations of the budding rivalry.
Although there was plenty of interaction between the two during Tuesday’s practice round and even on Day 1, both players seemed to revert to matching competitive blinders on Friday as the stakes increased incrementally.
“(On Thursday) he struggled a little bit off the tee and got up-and-down quite a bit,” Woods said. “Today he hit the ball a little bit better. He got off to a poor start and had a couple bad holes but overall he grinded his way around the golf course today.”
Some would say McIlroy’s two-day effort was downright Tiger-esque. On Thursday he turned what should have been a 72 or 73 into a 67 thanks to just 25 putts. On Friday he rallied after being saddled with a two-stroke penalty on the ninth hole with a 2-under back nine.
Meanwhile, Woods is beginning to look more like the guy who finished 2011 third (Australian Open)-first (Presidents Cup)-first (Chevron), instead of the player who hasn’t posted an official win in two years.
“He’s controlling his ball flight and knowing he’s giving himself plenty of chances,” McIlroy said of Woods. “He’s got this little 3-wood shot in the bag that he’s hitting an awful lot that looks like he can hit it all day.”
No, historians probably won’t chronicle this Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship as the week McIlroy assumed the role as Woods’ primary rival, although Mickelson’s continued swoon may expedite that transition. But if the stars continue to align properly over the desert, he may finally give Woods what he’s lacked his entire career – a rival with staying power.