McIlroy, Woods tee off with Donald in first round of WGC

Posted March 06, 2013, at 8:10 p.m.

MIAMI — Officially, the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship starts at 11:20 a.m. EST on Thursday. For a large percentage of fans, it’ll start at 11:53 when the Tiger Woods-Rory McIlroy-Luke Donald group tees off on the 10th hole.

Once again, the tournament on Trump Doral Golf Resort & Spa hit the lottery in the Official World Golf Rankings, which determine the groupings at WGC events. Combining the PGA Tour’s most popular player, No. 2 Woods, and golf’s It Guy since 2011, No. 1 McIlroy, injects star power and the excitement of a potential duel between the two right from the jump.

The Cadillac Championship got similar luck two years ago, when Woods, Phil Mickelson and Graeme McDowell started the tournament together. Gargantuan galleries couldn’t help Woods’ putting or the all-around games of Mickelson and McDowell and, by Friday evening, their following shrunk to small by Woods-Mickelson (healthy by everyone else’s) standards.

Woods and McIlroy playing together this week points up a small coincidence. Last year, Woods, a three-time winner at Doral but out of contention, pulled out of the Cadillac Championship during the final round with a sore Achilles tendon.

Last week at the Honda Classic, defending champion McIlroy pulled out on the ninth hole of an abysmal second round that had him at 7-over-par.

The difference is that McIlroy left blurting to reporters about being not right mentally and later issued a statement claiming he wasn’t right orally — as in a painful wisdom tooth. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger reported Monday that McIlroy told him the withdrawal was a mistake.

McIlroy is scheduled to speak to the massed media Wednesday morning. The whole episode prompts questions about the pressure of being No. 1 and how well McIlroy’s handling it at 23. In addition to the Honda withdrawal, he got knocked out of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in the first round and missed the cut in Abu Dhabi in January.

“People look at you and you’re kind of the leader of the pack. You have to show that you’re No. 1 in your game,” said Ernie Els, a former world No. 1. “So, you’re walking around with a lot more pressure than the guy that’s 50th in the world, I can promise you.”

Els was in McIlroy’s threesome at Honda. He said when McIlroy shook his hand before leaving he thought about saying something to McIlroy, words of admonishment or wisdom you might lay on a professional peer 20 years younger, but didn’t and said Monday he probably should have.

Els saw McIlroy practicing at The Bear’s Club, Jack Nicklaus’ club in Jupiter, over the weekend and at Seminole on Tuesday and talked privately with McIlroy.

“I was also 22, 23. I’m 43 now. I did a lot of silly things and what he’s done is nothing compared to what I did. Speak to my parents,” Els said. “But when it comes to being where he’s at, you’ve got to maybe think a little bit more than two minutes.

“You know, in a couple of years’ time, he won’t even be thinking about this or talk about this. If he wins this week, it’ll be the last thing we talk about.”

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