WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship: McIlroy defends No. 1 in Irish duel

Top overall seed Rory McIlroy hits a practice shot Tuesday on No. 10 at The Golf Club at Dove Mountain. He hopes to rebound after missing the cut in Abu Dhabi with his new Nike clubs.


Four years removed from making his American debut on Dove Mountain as a curly-haired, higher-voiced teen with the nickname "Rors" on the back of his ballcap, Rory McIlroy has all the trappings of a superstar.

The Northern Irishman, who finished second at last year's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, returned to The Golf Club at Dove Mountain on Tuesday as the world's No. 1 golfer.

McIlroy spent part of his packed press conference defending his new Nike clubs and lucrative endorsement deal with the company, which may come with a total paycheck of $100 million to $250 million, according to varying reports.

And after missing the cut in Abu Dhabi with his new clubs, McIlroy spoke of retreating to the French Alps and Monaco with his girlfriend, Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.

"It was nice," he said.

To first-round opponent Shane Lowry, though, the world's No. 1 is the same kid he met 10 years ago, and later teamed with as Irish amateurs.

"To be honest, I always thought that Rory was going to be one of the best golfers, if not the best golfer, in the world at some stage," said Lowry, who will tee off against McIlroy at 12:05 p.m. today.

"Did I think I'd be here playing against the world No. 1? I don't know if I knew I was good enough to turn pro and compete."

Lowry, 25, and McIlroy, 23, typically go out to dinner during the week of a tournament, or even play a practice round to prepare.

Not so this week.

"If I beat Rory," said the Irishman, who didn't start playing until age 12, "it would be one of the great stories of my career so far.

"I've got nothing to lose."

McIlroy will look to avoid becoming the fourth No. 1 overall seed in the history of the tournament to lose in the first round.

He joked with countryman Graeme McDowell, an early loser last year, about the fickle nature of Match Play: as McDowell was packing his bags to leave after Round 1, McIlroy's spikes sat in front of his locker, yet to be used.

"I'm reminded quite a lot how far or how much I've been No. 1," McIlroy said. "And my girlfriend was No. 1 for 67 weeks, so she still says I've got a long way to go."

Also filed under Nice Problem to Have: his inconsistencies following a multimillion dollar Nike deal.

Since he missed the cut in Abu Dhabi - meaning McIlroy has played all of two competitive rounds since Thanksgiving - he's added another putter to his bag. He put in a new driver, too, with a head 6 grams lighter and a changed shaft.

He scoffed at analyst and six-time major champion Nick Faldo's remark that it might take time to get used to new clubs, and said he expected the grief he'd get for his new deal.

"I knew it would happen if I didn't play well," McIlroy said, "and I probably put a little bit too much pressure on myself to play well because of that."

Lowry, meanwhile, credits McIlroy for career advice.

Lowry won the rainy 2009 Irish Open as an amateur - "It was unbelievable," McIlroy said - and celebrated with his friend afterward, spouts of champagne spewing in every direction.

"He was the first one to tell me to turn pro after I won the Irish Open," Lowry said about McIlroy.

Lowry did, and years later drew, for the first time, a match against McIlroy.

The similarities between the two stop with their tee time, Lowry joked.

"I used to have curly hair," he said. "I don't think there's many, to be honest. I actually don't know if there's any. He plays golf."

If Lowry can, at a high level today, the comparisons will only increase.

"I think if I win, yeah, it'll be pretty big with back home," he said, "because no one is expecting me to win."