• Out of Bounds

Spotlight switch comes at right time for Rory

ESPN staff
March 27, 2013
Some pressure has slipped from Rory McIlroy's shoulders after Tiger Woods rose to world No. 1 © Getty Images

Tiger Woods' return to form arguably comes at just the right time for Rory McIlroy, who - barring a win this week in Houston - will now go into the Masters next month as merely the second best player in the world.

With three wins already in 2013, Woods will head for Augusta (his next professional engagement, after a knock-about at the bourgeois Tavistock Cup on Tuesday) with many expecting him to claim a fifth green jacket. He is the runaway favourite with the bookies, a role that McIlroy had become accustomed to occupying in recent months.

Now, however, McIlroy - still technically 'out of form' by his own lofty standards - will go in with slightly reduced expectations of claiming a maiden Masters title.

"I didn't think I could go into the Masters under the radar," McIlroy said. "I can go in a little bit underneath him [Woods]. So, in a way, it's not a bad thing."

McIlroy is now everyone's second favourite for victory - but his chances are perhaps still every bit as good as Woods'. In his win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Tiger struggled to hit it straight and seemed virtually unable to successfully execute a draw (something he will need around Augusta), while it is worth remembering that McIlroy has got far closer to winning the prestigious spring tournament in the last few years (leading going into the final round in 2011) than Woods actually has.

Woods has dominated golf for so long that being the centre of attention is not something that fazes him in any way. McIlroy, though, will perhaps enjoy this period of respite - as long as it does not last for too long.

Perhaps anonymity is not a real problem for McIlroy, however. After all, the Northern Irishman managed to go down a municipal course in Miami earlier in the week to hit range balls - among the members - with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki and Novak Djokovic, a world No. 1 in an entirely different sport, and none of them were bothered.

"People left me alone, it was fine," McIlroy said. "It's nice to just go, not just go about my business and no one cares, but you go about it and not be, I guess, the most talked about person in golf. It's a nice thing."

The 'most talked about' player in golf and 'the best' player in golf are not necessarily one and the same, but they have come to be in recent times. They are both tags that any player has to come to live with; Luke Donald recently admitting that being No. 1 made it far harder for him to concentrate on his game, and that his recent decline - all the way to No. 4 - had actually be a relief in some ways.

McIlroy has always seemed destined to be No. 1 eventually (certainly in comparison to Donald) but it is nevertheless a tag that takes some getting used to - and Woods' rise may just give the Northern Irishman the time to get a bit more perspective that he needs.

After Woods' win at Bay Hill, McIlroy texted his Nike stablemate to congratulate him on returning to world No. 1.

Tiger's response?

"Take your finger out of your a** and win this week."

A rather unedifying image, and a challenge McIlroy might actually be better off not rising to. While he will undoubtedly go all-out for the 'W', missing out - and avoiding the return to world No. 1 - may actually leave him in a better, more comfotable spot to triumph at Augusta a few weeks down the line.

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