Time left for Rory-Tiger rivalry

If only Rory McIlroy had been born 10 years earlier, or Tiger Woods a decade later.

What a rivalry they could’ve had, maybe up there with Jack and Arnie, Ali and Frazier, Federer and Nadal, Magic and Bird.

But Woods is 36 and up against the clock as he searches for the champion he once was; McIlroy is 14 years his junior, scratching the surface of his vast potential, safe in the knowledge that he has the next 20 years to get it right.

Their rivalry, then, may not have longevity on its side, but if Sunday’s unforgettable finish to the Honda Classic is any indication, it still may provide days that fathers will tell their sons about.

It wasn’t surprising that McIlroy — on a windy Sunday afternoon in South Florida — became the youngest No. 1 since Woods reached the top of the world rankings as a 21-year-old in 1997.

Given his prodigious talent, it was always going to be his fate.

But it was the way the curly-haired kid from Holywood — outside of Belfast — achieved his dream that was the stuff of Hollywood.

When Woods put the finishing touches on an otherworldly round of 62 with a breathtaking eagle at the end, McIlroy was on the 13th green.

Woods had come from nowhere — nine shots back starting the day — to post 10-under par and take the clubhouse lead. McIlroy’s lead was down to one.

In the commentary booth, no less an authority than Jack Nicklaus, knowing the so-called ‘Bear Trap’ he’d designed at the course still awaited the young Northern Irishman, proclaimed he’d rather be in Woods’ position.

McIlroy had heard the roar from the 18th green and no one needed to tell him who it was for, or what it meant.

That kind of roar has provided the soundtrack to many a golfers’ obituary in the past.

But he steeled himself and made the putt.

“It was very important,” he later said, understatedly.

McIlroy didn’t panic as he did in the final round of last year’s Masters when the pressure got to be too much.

Instead, he calmly told himself that with a two-shot cushion, he just had to play the remaining five holes in even par.

And so he did, but not with his trademark superior ball-striking.

Instead, McIlroy relied on his short game; the only aspect of his game that has held him back and restricted him to a relatively modest haul of just five wins in his career.

He won with critical par saves after missing the green on 14, 15 and 17.

“As soon as he learned how to putt, he was going to be a dominating force, and you’re starting to see that now,” said McIlroy’s close mate, Graeme McDowell.

“I think he has a huge amount more belief than he had two years ago. Yes, he was not a standout closer two years ago, because he didn’t have the putting ability.

“Now he has the putting ability and he’s starting to win regularly. Like we all knew he could.”

Certainly his start to the season, second, fifth, second, win, is Tigeresque.

But standing in his way may just be Woods, who led the field in driving for the tournament and was tied-for-fifth in greens hit in regulation, a testament to his vastly improved ball striking.

On Sunday, he finally found his putting stroke.

”To me, it was the old Tiger back, the guy that I remember,” said Ernie Els, who played alongside Woods.

“He never missed a shot or made a bad swing.”

Typically, Woods didn’t get too high after his round — he waited to see how McIlroy would fare by watching the Lakers while keeping an eye on the golf — but ominously suggested that “it’s just a matter of time before I put it all together for an entire tournament”.

Mcilroy, meanwhile, hopes he does.

He wants to go up against the Tiger of lore.

“I always had putts on the putting green when I was 10 years old to beat Tiger Woods or to beat Phil Mickelson,” he said.

“Hopefully it would be great to turn that into reality at some point.

“Phil has won 40 tournaments and four majors, and Tiger has won 14 and 70 tour events, and here is me sitting with my third PGA tour event, so it’s a little different.

“Hopefully one day I’ll be able to get to the stature of those two guys.”

He will get his chance soon enough.

All three are in the field at this week’s Cadillac Championship at venerable Doral, the last time they’ll all play together before the Masters.

“Seeing Phil do what he did at Pebble; Tiger playing the way he did today; hopefully I’m in there somewhere, getting to No. 1; it’s great for the game and I think everyone is excited,” McIlroy said.

As McDowell noted: “This golf season just got a lot more spicy”.