AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy vs. Tiger Woods, the sequel. It would be a fun matchup to watch this week at the Masters.
Two weeks ago, in his most recent competition, McIlroy was shaking hands with Woods after the Northern Irishman lost, 2 and 1, in the round of 16 at the WGC Dell Match Play. McIlroy was so distraught that he peeled out of Austin (Texas) Country Club, shunning the media in the process.
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Rory McIlroy strides in front of Tiger Woods in the round of 16 at the recent WGC Dell Match Play, but Woods ultimately ended up in front. Could another showdown be in the works at the Masters?
Outside of the Austin hiccup, McIlroy has contended in every start this year, with a victory at the Players and top-6 finishes in his five other starts, all on the PGA Tour. His decision to shun his home tour and commit to the U.S. has forced Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive, to manage some fallout on that side of the Atlantic. But if McIlroy can turn the focus into a green jacket and the career Grand Slam on Sunday night, then the move will have been validated.
McIlroy, who will turn 30 on May 4, hasn’t won a major championship in nearly five years. Since that 2014 PGA title, his fourth major, McIlroy has gone 0 for 15 (he missed the 2015 British Open with an ankle injury) in what should be the prime of his career.
Now, it seems as if the stars might be aligning again for him as he has crept back up to No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“I think, if anything, it's just focusing on the small things and not living and dying by results, and not getting caught up in trying to play perfect golf,” McIlroy said Tuesday at Augusta. “Sort of maybe a little more acceptance, and a little bit of change in attitude, which I think has been one of the biggest keys to how I've played for the first few months of the year.”
Woods, who lost in the quarterfinals in Austin in his most recent tournament, also has played solidly this season, with three finishes of 20th or better in four starts before the Match Play. At 43, Woods, a 14-time major champion who is seeking his fifth green jacket, has risen to No. 12 in the world.
But in his past 28 major championships – dating to that memorable playoff victory in the 2008 U.S. Open – Woods has failed to win. But this isn’t the same Tiger Woods who has gone a decade without adding to his major haul. He tied for sixth in the British Open last year and followed that with a runner-up in the PGA. Since his victory in the Tour Championship in September, Woods has pointed toward April and Augusta with renewed purpose. The Las Vegas oddsmakers feel it, too, installing him as a 14-1 pick – the No. 4 choice, behind McIlroy, Dustin Johnson (10-1) and Justin Rose (12-1) – to win.
“I feel like I can win,” Woods said. “I've proven that I can do it, and I put myself there with a chance to win the last two major championships of the year last year. I was right there and just needed to have a couple more things to go my way and not throw away a couple shots here and there, which I was able to do at East Lake.”
Woods hasn’t won at Augusta National since 2005, but he has contended in recent years, posting seven top-10 finishes in his past 10 starts. Since significant course changes in 2006 stretched the layout from 7,290 yards to its current 7,475 and added numerous trees, Woods hasn’t added another green jacket.
“I first got here, it was my length,” said Woods, noting a key competitive advantage early in his career. “The par 5s were all reachable with irons, some with short irons. The years I drove it well, the longest iron I hit into a par 4 would probably be an 8‑iron. A lot of sand wedges.”
When Woods won his last Masters, the leaderboard included Chris DiMarco, Luke Donald, Retief Goosen, Mark Hensby and Rod Pampling in the top 10. All are not here this week.
Now, Woods must contend with the likes of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Rose and, of course, McIlroy. They own 13 major titles among them.
How would the golf universe respond to a McIlroy-vs.-Woods pairing in Sunday’s final group? McIlroy, for one, said it doesn’t matter, only that he is able to beat everybody.
“I guess the cliché answer is, it would mean a lot to me, but it doesn't matter who it is,” McIlroy said. “You know, what other people do, it's none of my business. I have to look after myself and control what I do, and that's all I really have to focus on.”
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli