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McIlroy, you might remember, is the one who wanted a piece of Woods at the Ryder Cup, the one who said earlier this year that it was obvious Woods was not on his game. If this was a guy who was worried about freezing up under pressure he probably would be practicing his short putts on the kitchen tile at night at his rented home instead of throwing a football around with three buddies from his playing days at Holywood Golf Club just outside Belfast.

He’s not very good at throwing the unfamiliar ball. He’s plenty good with the little white one.

“I do feel comfortable,” McIlroy said. “But the only reason I feel comfortable is because I’m playing well. If I continue playing the way I have, I feel I’ll have a great chance this week. I feel as if I’ve prepared as good as anyone else and feel as if I’m hitting it as well as anyone else.”

The rest of the kiddie corps threesome seems equally comfortable to be at or near the top of a leaderboard full of possibilities. Day’s biggest problem in shooting his 64 was slowing himself down as McIlroy and Fowler walked and played quickly; Fowler _ who is five shots off the pace _ seems more concerned selecting his playing clothes than he does with the prospect of Woods knocking him down.

All three will have to deal with a suddenly resurgent Woods this weekend, and the odds are we’ll find out just as much about Woods as we will about them. Woods may have four green jackets, but there are more questions surrounding the state of both his game and his head than there are about Fowler’s fashion sense.

If the old Tiger is back _ and that’s a big if _ we’ll see if the new generation can rise to the challenge better than the players before them. We’ll see if McIlroy is a star, and whether Day and Fowler can join him as part of the next big thing.

It will all play out on a hot, sultry weekend in one of golf’s most sacred places.

No better time or place to decide the future of the game.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org