Form can fluctuate, but class is ever present. It’s a saying that comes straight from the commentator's book of clichés, but is intriguing nonetheless, especially when examining the potential fortunes of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in 2014.
Woods is the undeniable world No.1, with five victories last year on his home circuit. McIlroy, on the other hand, endured his most frustrating season after some incredible hype 12 months ago, only to rescue his year with a splendid victory at the Australian Open in December.
The form right now would suggest that Northern Ireland’s young star is on the verge of reclaiming his rightful position at the top of the game, whilst Woods, who arrived here in Dubai on Monday night, could not have been pleased with his disappointing performance on the PGA Tour at the weekend, where he missed the 54-hole cut.
It would be wrong however, to prejudge either golfing gladiator, but perhaps, the age gap is beginning to tell. McIlroy will turn 25 in May and has undergone an incredible learning curve since claiming his second major title in August of 2012.
Woods meanwhile, was 38 on December 30 - and his fifth year without a major has fueled speculation over his chances of adding to his 14 grand slam titles.
The increased attention on McIlroy, combined with the massive commercial interest, conspired eventually to slightly derail his ascent toward world dominance. With colossal sponsorship deals coming his way, there was an early season fallout with his management team, at a time when he was clearly unsettled on the golf course.
That development only accelerated his poor form and it wasn’t until September, as he announced the formation of his own company and plans to tackle the legal issues concerning his split from Horizon Sports management, that he began to see light at the end of the tunnel. By no means resolved, the feeling is that the legal issues between both sides will be settled before the case is due to be heard before Dublin’s commercial court this September.
For Woods, there is an undeniable pressure to win a grand slam tournament in 2014. Nothing less will do and you’d have to think that he could make that type of progress this season.
His blip at the Torrey Pines, where he has won eight times (seven PGA Tour events and his last major, the 2008 U.S. Open) should be looked at as merely that - an aberration, a little out of character, but way too early to be sounding the death march.
Woods has far too much class as a golfer and way too much experience not to get his game in gear for the four majors this season. He has won on three of this year’s major venues (Augusta, Hoylake and Valhalla) and Torrey Pines was his first event back after a winter break which was not filled with golf, but more on his duties as a single father and, where possible, taking a break.
That rust was in evidence in San Diego, but it doesn’t tend to last too long.
The signs are certainly very positive in Camp McIlroy here in Dubai and the feeling is that he is close to his best. Already installed as the 7/2 favorite, ahead of Woods at 6/1, Rory has been hard at work since the beginning of January, days after proposing to girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki on a boat in Sydney Harbour on New Year’s Eve.
It’s been a tough regime of gym work, range work, golf and more gym activity before unwinding to an early bed. The form has been impressive, with a tied second place alongside Phil Mickelson down the road in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago. It could have been a victory too, had he not incurred a two-shot penalty in the penultimate round.
Sources close to the McIlroy team have spoken of a recent round of 10-under-par 62 while playing with friends at the local Els Club in Dubai, and those who have witnessed his practice sessions on the range at the nearby Butch Harmon school have remarked on his impressive accuracy with his short game sessions in particular.
With his renowned long game, he looks to be back to his best, putting the club in a great position on the backswing, which allows him to hit the ball a little more from the inside, while maintaining a nice square clubface through impact.
The class of both players is undeniable, but this week, it’s form that should dictate which of these big draws makes it to the top of the podium.
Do you think McIlroy will be a major contender this year? And can Tiger finally win his 15th? Have your say in the comments box below or continue the conversation with @ShaneODonoghue or on World Sport's Facebook page.
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Shane O’Donoghue joined CNN in 2011 as the host of monthly programme, ‘Living Golf’. Hailing from Tipperary in Ireland, Shane worked as a presenter and commentator for the national broadcaster RTE for fifteen years. From 2004-2010, he was part of the BBC TV Golf Commentary team, reporting, commentating and interviewing at key events such as The Masters, Open Championships, BMW PGA Championships, Barclays Scottish Open Championships in addition to the Ryder and Walker Cups. For CNN, he was the first journalist to interview Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy together. A fine player himself, Shane regularly takes on the pros on behalf of CNN Living Golf. He has a particular passion for the amateur game, and has written a book called, “Legends in their Spare Time”, about Ireland’s finest amateur players.
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‘Living Golf’ is CNN’s monthly golf show, hosted by Shane O’Donoghue.