The golfing world may be hoping for a Sunday afternoon duel between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy but only one of the pair believes it legitimate to brand the world No1 and No2 as immediate opponents.
Despite having just been toppled by a resurgent Woods at the top of the world rankings, McIlroy has said "rival" is an inappropriate description of him. Woods is seeking to end a major drought that stretches back to 2008 and he has not won the Masters since 2005.
Yet McIlroy has pointed to Woods's overall career success in endorsing his claim. The 23-year-old said: "I don't see myself as a rival to Tiger or to anyone. Tiger has been on tour for what, 12 more years than me, or something like that. When you speak of rivals you tend to put in rivals who have had similar success.
"He has got 77 PGA Tour events. I have got six. He has 14 majors. I have got two. If I saw myself as a rival to Tiger, I wouldn't really be doing him much justice."
Woods disagreed. "I think that over the course of my career I've had a few. Certainly Rory is this generation. I've had Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els and David Duval for a number of years and now Rory's leading this new, younger generation."
On the prospect of a fourth shootout with McIlroy at Augusta National Woods added: "I'd like to be there first, then we will figure out who is there as well. My main responsibility is to get there and then be part of that mix."
McIlroy offered another denial, to the suggestion that the other 92 Masters competitors may be somehow daunted by Woods's return to form. "It doesn't make a difference to me at all," the Northern Irishman said. "I'm here to concentrate on myself and play my game. It really doesn't matter what anyone else does, because I'm here to try and shoot the best score that I can and, if I can do that, I know I'll have a good chance."
McIlroy showed traces of his own finest touch last week at the Texas Open. There he finished second to Martin Laird. Would anything less than a win be a disappointment this week? "Yes, it would be," he admitted. "Every time you come here to Augusta you're wanting to win that Green Jacket and every time that you don't it's another chance missed, I guess.
"But if I'm sitting here on Sunday night and I've finished second or if I have given it a good run, I couldn't be too disappointed because I would have had a great tournament. But the ultimate goal is getting one of those jackets." McIlroy's struggles this year were routinely linked to his switch to Nike and its equipment. At the very least the two matters coincided in terms of time.
"I'm very comfortable and I'm 100% there," said the Northern Irishman of his new clubs. "It's definitely not the clubs, that's for sure. That's what I've found out over the past few weeks. It's more me. I wanted to do it all at the start of the year. I didn't want to leave it for a while and say I would put something in the bag in dribs and drabs.
"I just wanted to get it all in, get it all settled and have it over and done with so that eight, nine months down the line, I don't have to say, OK, right, I need to try to get this in or that in. I just wanted to get it all in straightaway. I'm really comfortable with everything. I feel like they are a part of me now and that's the way a golf club should be."
Swing changes made to protect Woods's left knee, under the guidance of his coach, Sean Foley, have paid off with three wins already in 2013, while a relationship with the Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn seems to have contributed to a more relaxed demeanour for the world No1.
Woods spoke of the "beautiful juggling act" of coping with family life as well as playing golf but claimed he is still as focused as ever, with his obvious attention now on endorsing that improvement with his 15th major. "I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game," said the 37-year-old. "I feel that I've improved and I've got more consistent and I think the wins show that. That's something that I'm proud of so far this year and hopefully I can continue it this week and the rest of the year.
"It was nice to get back to ranked No1. There are a lot of players who try to get there and have never been able to do it and I've been able to get there a few times throughout my career. To battle the injuries that I've come through and to get through all that and to win enough golf tournaments and to win consistently enough to get to that point is something I'm very proud of."
Woods believes his ambition of beating Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors remains a realistic one. "I would like to be able to get to that point," said Woods. "It took Jack a while to get to 18, all the way until he was 46 years old. So there are plenty of opportunities for me. That's one of the neat things about [a golfer's] career, it's so long. We have an opportunity to play basically 30 years solidly at a high level. We have very expansive careers and I feel like I'm basically right in the middle of mine. I have a lot of good years ahead of me and I'm excited about this week."
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