Rory McIlroy: Tiger Woods can walk away with head held high

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy looks for his ball in the rough on the 17th during day one of the British Masters at Close House near Newcastle. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy looks for his ball in the rough on the 17th during day one of the British Masters at Close House near Newcastle. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
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Tiger Woods can walk away from golf with his held “extremely high” if his competitive career is indeed finished. So says Rory McIlroy, who, helped by the fact he’d just opened with an encouraging three-under-par 67 in the British Masters at Close House, was happy to talk about Woods who admitted on Wednesday for the first time that he might never hit a ball in the heat of battle again.

“If he doesn’t play again, he’s been the greatest 
player that I’ve seen,” said McIlroy afrer recovering from an early bogey to card four birdies to sit handily placed – four shots behind joint-leaders George Coetzee and Tyrrell Hatton – in his penultimate event of the year. The Northern Irishman has decided to take a three-month break after next week’s Dunhill Links to give a niggling rib injury a chance to clear up.

Tiger Woods looks on before the first round of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City. Picture: Julio Cortez/AP

Tiger Woods looks on before the first round of the Presidents Cup at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City. Picture: Julio Cortez/AP

“I didn’t really see Jack [Nicklaus] play. Jack has a better record [winning 18 majors, four more than Woods], but I don’t know if he played better golf. He [Woods] played the greatest golf anyone in my lifetime has seen.

“If this is it, he doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone – not to me, not to us, not to himself. He can walk away from this game with his head held extremely high. He’s done wonders for this game. I don’t think there’s a single figure in golf who did more for the game in terms of bringing different groups of people into the game. Different ethnicities, different age groups. He made golf cool in the 90s, when it really needed an injection of something. He’s a legend of the game and, if this is it, then everyone should applaud what a great career he’s had.”

Speaking in the build up to the Presidents Cup in New York, where is a US vice captain this week, Woods conceded that he might not be able to play again due to the back troubles that have required four separate procedures in recent years. Asked if he could see a scenario where he didn’t come back to competitive golf, the former world No 1 replied: “Yeah, definitely.”

He admitted that he had been unable to ride in golf carts until recently due to back pain and, in a blog, Woods said that he has no timetable for his return as he is only able to hit 60-yard shots at the moment

“He’s taking it very slowly,” added McIlroy. “I spent a bit of time with him over the past few months and he’s waiting on his doctors to tell him when he can do things again. He’s going to take their advice and not be quite as stubborn as he was maybe back in the day.”

Having cut his golfing teeth at Holywood outside Belfast, McIlroy is used to playing a hilly golf course. Even he admitted this week’s venue in the Tyne Valley is one of the most challenging he’s faced in that respect, though. “This is another level to Holywood,” he said. “There’s some holes out there, I’m not sure anyone has ever played off as steep a grading. It’s a different challenge than we face every week.”

On an idyllic day in the North-East, Coetzee signed for an eagle and six birdies as he bounced back admirably from dumping his tee shot at the last into water when he was tied for second with Marc Warren in the Portugal Masters on Sunday.

The 31-year-old South African, who has won three times but never on European soil, was joined in the lead after Hatton, who is the defending champion in the aforementioned Dunhill Links, birdied five of the last seven holes and stormed home in 30. It was a welcome boost for the Englishman after a difficult season in which he believes he listened to too much swing advice from too many quarters. “I’m not a tech person and there were a few numbers being thrown around which I didn’t want to know,” he said. “My swing feels good now and I’ve got a good friend, Jonathan Bell, on the bag and we’re just trying to have a bit of fun.”

The pair lead by one from Finnish pair Mikko Ilonen and Mikko Korhonen, Englishman Chris Hanson and Swede Rikard Karlberg, with tournament host Lee Westwood, major champions Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell and recent European Masters winner Matt Fitzpatrick all signing for 66s.