Tait: McIlroy has found his comfort zone

Rory McIlroy will be paired with Tiger Woods and Luke Donald in the opening round at Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates - Rory McIlroy has found his comfort zone. Look out Tiger Woods.

Six years ago, McIlroy snuck inside the ropes during the Dubai Desert Classic to get a closer look at Woods. Then a fresh-faced teenager, McIlroy was in awe of he player he’d watched growing up and wanted to witness him first hand.

McIlroy got an invite to play in the 2006 Dubai Desert Classic and couldn’t resist the chance to get up close to his boyhood hero.

“I played in the morning on the Thursday and shot 72,” McIlroy said. “Tiger was out in the afternoon, and I went out to follow him and borrowed one of the camera guy’s camera so I was able to walk inside the ropes.”

The reigning U.S. Open champion has moved on quite a bit since then. He didn’t have to sneak inside ropes yesterday to get up close to Woods. The pair played nine holes together in preparation for this week’s $2.7 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Given Rory’s rise in the last few years and Tiger’s fall, it’s not surprising the Northern Irishman isn’t in awe of Woods any more.

“The first time I played with Tiger I was a little nervous. I remember playing a skins game with him at The Memorial Tournament two years ago. You’ve watched this guy on TV your whole life winning majors and doing things no one thought possible. So you’re going to be a little awestruck.

“I suppose once I got to spend a little time with him, maybe have lunch with him a few times and everything, you can sort of break the barrier down a little bit. I played with him at the Chevron in 2010 and felt less in awe of him. Obviously getting to know him a little bit better since, I feel quite comfortable being around him.”

He and Woods are the main attractions here in Abu Dhabi, even though Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, the World Nos. 1 and 3, respectively, are also in the field. Indeed it would be interesting to find out whether Woods or McIlroy is being paid more appearance money. Considering Woods’ photo appears more prominent on billboards that scream “The Giants of Golf,” Woods is probably on the bigger stipend. However, McIlroy might not be getting much less given his appeal.

The pair tee off together at 7:40 a.m. local time (10:40 p.m. EST Wednesday night) in the company of Donald. If ever a World No. 1 was reduced to third-rate billing then this is it.

It’s dream three-ball, but what the golfing public is really interested in is how McIlroy and Woods stack up against each other this week, the rest of the year and the next few years. Many have picked out McIlroy as the man to assume Tiger’s mantle as the world’s best player - the one to make a serious inroad on Woods’ 14 major titles.

Given the strength of the Abu Dhabi field – six of the world’s top 10 plus No. 25 Woods – we should get a fairly strong indication of whether or not McIlroy is going to live up to expectations and start adding to his major trophy cabinet.

“It’s definitely not a quiet way to start the year. You get straight at it right away. You’re playing with two of the best golfers in the world the first two days and you’re up against one of the strongest fields probably assembled all year," said McIlroy.

“You want to get off to a good start…. but obviously the majors have that little bit extra, that something different. If I was to come up against Tiger at any point in a tournament this year, it would be a great thing for me. I think it would be a huge challenge to see how my game would hold up against that sort of pressure.”

One thing’s for sure, McIlroy won’t be in awe. He’ll be in his own comfort zone.

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