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McIlroy and the kids headed into Tiger showdown

- Associated Press - Friday, April 8, 2011

AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - He plays like he's running late for his own wedding, hardly surprising because Rory McIlroy has always been in a hurry.

Watch him hit the ball and you forget he's just 21. See him racing around Augusta National and you're reminded how much fun the game can still be.

Imagine him wearing a green jacket, and suddenly Tiger Woods seems so yesterday.

The best show at the Masters this year doesn't wear red on Sunday or hang his head and curse at himself every time he hits a bad shot. Instead, it's a mop-head from Northern Ireland who may finally give golf the engaging young star the game so desperately needs.

Get him to stop throwing the football long enough to pick up his clubs and the birdies start coming. Pair him with a couple of other budding young stars in the first two rounds of the Masters and magic happens.

"I'm two ahead at a major championship," McIlroy said. "You can't be disappointed with that."

It's a position he's not entirely unfamiliar with, and one he seems increasingly comfortable with. His playing partners call him wise beyond his years, and it doesn't seem a stretch that he can become the youngest Masters champion since Woods turned golf upside-down with his runaway win in the 1997 Masters.

On a sticky Friday afternoon he did nothing to hurt his chances, shooting a 3-under 69 that seemed mundane only because he shot 65 a day earlier and 23-year-old playing partner Jason Day was on his way to shooting a 64, the lowest round of the tournament. In just his third Masters he played like a seasoned pro, taking his birdies when they presented themselves and playing away from the pin when it looked as though trouble could intrude.

In between shots, McIlroy, Day and blue-shoed Rickie Fowler chatted away about whatever 20-somethings with the world at their fingertips chat about, enjoying the day almost as much as the cheering fans who lined the fairways on the back nine.

If this is the future of golf, golf seems to be in pretty good hands.

"It was great, it was fantastic," McIlroy said. "Rickie and I both got off to pretty good starts, Jason played great the whole day. Sort of fed off one another. Got a little momentum and the crowd really got behind us on the back nine."

It may have helped that Woods was well off the pace and playing far behind the threesome when they romped along the fabled course in a combined 14-under-par. Woods didn't really get his own round going until the back nine, but finished off a second-round surge with a fist-pumping birdie on the final hole that pulled him into a tie for third at 7-under-par.

But McIlroy has already been doing this too long to be intimidated by Woods. He tied for third at three of the last five majors, set a major championship record by opening with a 63 at St. Andrews in the British Open last year, and won his first tournament on the PGA Tour last year by shooting a spectacular 62 in the final round.

More importantly, he seems unbothered by thoughts about going up against the great one.

"It will be great for the tournament if he's up there," McIlroy said. "But I'm two shots ahead and I'm in a better position."

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

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