01/27/2012 02:34 pm ET

Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy Embark On New Rivalry At Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship

By Alistair Tait, Golfweek

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Where would sport be without rivalries? Yankees-Dodgers, Celtics-Lakers, Packers-Bears, Arnie versus Jack, Seve versus the entire U.S. Ryder Cup team, Tiger-Phil ... the list is endless.

Rivalries. We love them. Live for them. Sport thrives on them. That's why what's blossoming here in the desert could be great for golf for the next few years to come.

There may be 129 players in the field, but all eyes rest on two: Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. They played the first two rounds in the company of World No. 1 Luke Donald, but he was just a distraction. The galleries cared only for Woods-McIlroy.

The parallels between the two men are obvious. Both were child prodigies. Woods appeared on the Johnny Carson show at age 2. McIlroy wasn't quite that young when he appeared on the popular Irish Gerry Kelly show, but he was chipping balls into a washing machine on live TV at 9.

Both were winning tournaments and setting record scores against older opposition from the moment they started playing tournaments. This rivalry almost seems ordained.

Although it's hard to predict the future on the basis of just two rounds of golf, Woods looks like he could make a serious assault on the majors this year. He feels his swing is close to where it was when he was the dominant force in golf.

"I feel like I'm swinging well, and a lot of things Sean (Foley, Woods' swing instructor) and I have been working on are starting to feel very comfortable. Consequently I'm shooting good scores," Woods said.

"The club is in a similar position that I had when I was younger. I'm doing it in a slightly different way -- better mechanics but a similar position."

Music to the ears of golf fans everywhere, and backed up by McIlroy.

"He's definitely got the ball under control," McIlroy said. "He seems comfortable. He's only made a couple of bogeys in two days. He's not making many mistakes, and he's very consistent. His ball flight looks good. I'm really looking forward to battling over the weekend."

Of course Woods never would entertain the thought of singling out one man to beat. He's far more diplomatic than that.

Not McIlroy, though. He's champing at the bit to take Woods on.

"Everyone knows I grew up idolizing him, so it would be great for me to test myself against him," McIlroy said.

More music to the ears of fans the world over.

"It's a great motivation for me. I feel 2012 is going to be an exciting year for me."

And hopefully for golf. McIlroy might have only the one major -- last year's U.S. Open -- but he was born to win the game's greatest tournaments. The greatest names in the game feel that way.

"Better than Tiger Woods at the same age," said Mark O'Meara, himself a major winner and Woods' mentor.

"Rory is by far the best young player I've ever played with," said 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.

"The next No. 1," Ernie Els said.

Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open winner and McIlroy's countryman, thinks the Northern Irishman is the one player in the game today who can make a serious assault on Woods' record in the majors.

"Will he achieve what Tiger was doing around 2000 and win 14 major championships? Can he be that good? He's got that potential," McDowell said.

Let's hope so. Let's hope the pair battle it out over the Abu Dhabi fairways for the next two days, and then do it for real in the tournaments that really count: the majors. It would be great for the game of golf.

To paraphrase the closing line of Casablanca, "This could be the start of a beautiful rivalry."

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