Top seed McIlroy looks vulnerable

Coming into this season, the pressure was on Tiger Woods to depose Rory McIlroy as golf’s king.

But heading into the Accenture World Match Play Championship beginning Wednesday, it seems as if the roles quickly have been reversed.

Woods silenced the critics — at least until Augusta — by winning three weeks ago in his PGA Tour season opener at Torrey Pines.

McIlroy has so far made only a brief — and disastrous — cameo appearance, missing the cut in Abu Dhabi, his only two rounds of competitive golf since November.

“He was not ready when he came out to play in the Middle East a month ago and clearly not ready with his equipment, not ready with his golf swing and didn’t look ready in any way,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said on Tuesday.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen Rory McIlroy swing or play. A month has transpired, and you’d like to think he got the equipment issue settled and he’s going to show up.”

McIlroy, the beaten finalist here last year, fronted the media Tuesday knowing the focus would be on the mega deal he signed with Nike, believed to be around $25 million a year for at least five years.

Many golf insiders, including six-time major champion Nick Faldo, have questioned the wisdom of ditching the Titleist clubs and ball that McIlroy used to win two majors and claim the No. 1 ranking in favor of cash from the ubiquitous swoosh.

The young Northern Irishman is invariably good-natured, but it was clear the criticism irks him.

"Nick Faldo doesn’t know how I feel over the golf shot, and I don’t know how he felt," McIlroy said. "But my guess is he was a little more analytically minded than I am. I try and keep things as simple as possible.

"If I see the ball going in the direction that I want, in the flight that I want, then I’m happy. It feels good, and, hopefully, I can show that to everyone this week."

He did concede, however, that mistakes were made in Abu Dhabi, where he didn’t help himself by swapping out a new Nike putter in favor of his old Scotty Cameron Titleist putter after only one round.

"I knew it would happen if I didn’t play well," he said of the criticism he has received. "I probably put a little bit too much pressure on myself to play well because of that. Abu Dhabi was a busy week; there was a lot going on.”

McIlroy has since switched to a new, heavier putter — and, yes, there’s a swoosh stamped on it — and has also altered his driver, which was both short and crooked in the Middle East.

This tournament, however, isn’t the easiest in which to find confidence because, unlike, say, the NCAA basketball tournament, seedings don’t really mean much.

No one’s ever shocked when a top seed goes out — Woods twice lost to the bottom seed — because of the vagaries of 18-hole match play over the more traditional 36 hole format.

“It’s potluck in these 18-hole sprints,” Woods said on Tuesday. “Anything can happen, and it’s imperative to get off to a positive start. It’s impossible to come back in 18 holes.”

Neither will it help McIlroy that he has drawn his longtime friend and former Irish junior teammate Shane Lowry for Wednesday’s first round.

Woods, meanwhile, seemed relaxed — attempting again to grow a goatee — and spoke more about his round Sunday with President Barack Obama than he did about his first-round opponent here, Charles Howell III.

Woods has won this event three times but has struggled since it moved to Dove Mountain.

In 2009 — coming off knee surgery — he lost in the second round to Tim Clark. In 2011, he was upset in the first round by Thomas Bjorn. And last year, Woods missed a 6-footer on the last to lose 1-down in the second round to Nick Watney.

But, with four wins under his belt in the past 11 months, it’s clear his game’s in a better place than it has been since the end of 2009.

Better, but as Chamblee notes, not yet back to where it once was.

While Chamblee said he was “blown away” by how good Woods was in the first three rounds of the Farmers Insurance Open — “Tiger as good as I think I’ve ever seen him,” Chamblee said — he couldn’t overlook Woods’ staggering to victory, playing the final five holes in 4 over par.

“I think since Tiger Woods came back in 2010, none of us have a handle on him,” he said. “If you start to look forward to this week, you start to say, which Tiger is going to show up: the guy that had the 54-hole lead at Torrey Pines or the guy who played in a limp in the last 18 holes at Torrey Pines?”

Chamblee made another, broader, point.

“I think Tiger is playing under more stress than he’s ever played under in his life,” he said. “There’s tremendous stress on him from sponsors to be the player that he used to be. I think there’s tremendous stress on himself to show the world that he’s the player that he used to be; that the scandal is not going to be the thing that keeps him from breaking Jack’s record.

“I think there’s further stress on Tiger to play the way he used to — to sort of shut everybody up, because Tiger really wants to do that.”

So he and McIlroy have that in common.