Tiger Woods knows something about slumps, so when the 79-time PGA Tour winner says his pal Rory McIlroy has the game to win before the end of the year, perhaps he’s onto something.
Woods, who Monday dropped a pay-for-play exhibition match in China to the former No. 1 for the second straight year, divined that McIlroy would end his nearly year-long winless drought before the ball drops in Times Square.
"He is playing better and swinging a lot better. You can see that some of the stuff he and his coach are working on are starting to come together," Woods, who also has a passing familiarity with swing issues, told Reuters on Tuesday after bowing, 68-67, to McIlroy in the 18-hole chat-a-thon at Mission Hills in Haikou, China. "He's starting to put together a few good rounds, now he just has to make a few more putts. I can definitely see him winning sometime this year because his game has come around."
McIlroy, boosted by Northern Irish countryman Graeme McDowell as the "new Tiger Woods" during the younger golfer’s record-breaking U.S. Open romp in 2011, won his second major last year on his way to capturing the PGA and European Tour money titles and player of the year honors.
Then he switched from Titleist to Nike clubs in January and, but for his unofficial victory over a sick and rusty Woods earlier this week, has gone winless since. A legal spat with his ex-manager and a reported breakup with tennis star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki have also kept the 24-year-old Ulsterman busy off the course.
While McIlroy scuffled throughout the PGA Tour season, which ended at September's Tour Championship (for which McIlroy did not qualify) before picking up again in mid-October, Woods stepped up his game. A five-time winner in 2013, the 37-year-old who’s been stuck on 14 major championships since 2008 bounced McIlroy from atop the world rankings in March.
Slumped to No. 6, McIlroy finished second at the Korea Open two weeks ago before proclaiming his game was "falling back into place" and stumbling to a T27 close at last week’s BMW Masters event in China.
For sure, beating Woods, who picked up a virus from his kids sometime during his recent hiatus, for nothing more than bragging rights (and, of course, a reported $1.5 million just for showing up), means little in the scheme of things. It could serve, however, to bolster the confidence of the former Boy Wonder.
After all, he has to start somewhere, just as Woods did when he chalked up his first (unofficial) win in more than two years at his own limited field World Challenge in December 2011. Three months later, Tiger clobbered his competitors at Bay Hill for the first of three tour Ws in 2012 that counted.
"I would like to play all my tournaments in China where I can beat Tiger," McIlroy quipped after showing some firepower and touch in posting four birdies and an eagle to close out Woods in their friendly tilt.
He won’t have Tiger to kick around this week, since Woods will skip the WGC-HSBC Champions event that starts Thursday. But McIlroy will have a chance to put that China theory to the test and, if he can prevail over the likes of reigning U.S. Open champ Justin Rose, British Open winner Phil Mickelson and Rookie of the Year Jordan Spieth, finally return to the winner’s circle.