Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy Contend For Golf’s Top Spot

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 28: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Tiger Woods of the USA during the third round of Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship on January 28, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

Luke Donald must be hearing footsteps, as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy try to overtake the Englishman and climb into first place in the world golf rankings.

Many of the games-within-the-game this week involve, naturally, Tiger Woods (see: Can he finally win his 15th major and chip away at Jack Nicklaus’s 18? Will he move closer to Sam Snead’s all-time record of 82-wins? Will he get out to a strong start, only to stumble once again down the stretch? Et cetera, et cetera).

Woods also has the chance to climb back atop the rankings ladder for the first time since October 2010. But the current No. 2 has some competition for the first slot from last year’s PGA Tour wunderkind. Indeed, Rory McIlroy, currently third in the Official World Golf Rankings behind Woods and top-ranked Luke Donald, sent a message with an opening-round 5-under 67, that he was, indeed, “playing pretty well” entering the year’s final major.

“There's still a lot of golf left to play, but very happy with some of the golf that I've played this year,” McIlroy told reporters Wednesday, when he gave himself a “B” for the season to date. “You know, I've still got a lot of good golf to look forward to.”

Woods, whose flat stick has been suspect off and on this season, needed just 22 first-round putts and canned a dozen 1-putts during an otherwise up-and-down day. But a stretch of three straight birdies as he made the turn at 18 helped him into the clubhouse with a 69. He credited some changes he made during last week’s Bridgestone Invitational for Thursday’s putting prowess.

“I putted well on the weekend, made a few adjustments Friday night last week, and felt like I hit a lot of good putts,” he said after watching defending champ Keegan Bradley post a 68 and 2010 PGA winner Martin Kaymer cough up an ugly 79. “Started the ball on my start lines again and I think I made six putts over 20 feet out there or something like that on the weekend, which is good. Came here with the same thoughts, same feels, and I made a few today.”

Woods, who plummeted as low as 58th in the rankings after his sex scandal and injuries, already sits atop the FedEx Cup points standings and is the only three-time tour winner this season. He conceded he would enjoy reclaiming the No. 1 spot as well.

"It would be nice to get back there because obviously it meant that as far as I had dropped, to build my way back up to this point, I've had some wins, I've had some very high finishes, I've been consistent," Woods declared prior to the Bridgestone. "That's how you get to be one of the top players in the world. To be ranked as low as I did and then come all the way back to, as of right now, No. 2, that's pretty good."

For OWGR geeks, here’s what the PGA Tour says has to happen for Woods and McIlroy to surpass Donald at the top of the rankings leaderboard:

  • Win and go home -- Woods would take back the crown he held for a record 623 weeks with a victory this week. A solo second finish would do the trick as well -- if McIlroy were to come up short of a victory and Donald ended the week in sixth place or lower.
  • He tries harder -- For McIlroy (who has played musical chairs for much of the season with Donald for the top ranking) to get to No. 1, he would need the current king to finish no higher than in a two-way tie for second. Finishing in second by himself would move McIlroy into the top slot if Donald missed the cut and Woods did not win.

Heading into Friday’s second round, McIlroy was one of four players in second, one back of 18-hole leader Carl Petterrson. Woods was three off the pace.

Donald, by the way, was not so keen about relinquishing his crown but he was well aware of those seeking to stage a coup.

“Obviously I've got a lot of great players behind me, including Tiger,” Donald said ahead of last week’s Firestone clash. “It's good to have guys like that chomping at your heel. They push you to work harder, to challenge yourself to try and get to that next level."

Donald finished his first day at Kiawah Island with a 74 and will begin Friday’s second round in a tie for 88th.

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