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(JOE SKIPPER/Reuters)
(JOE SKIPPER/Reuters)

Usual Suspects

Rory arrives as Tiger's rival Add to ...

We always believed it would be Phil. Or Sergio. Or Ernie or DL III or Padraig. But it now appears that Rory McIlroy is going to be Sherlock Holmes to Tiger Woods’ Dr. Moriarity. The Northern Irish prodigy, who looks more like your newspaper boy, stared down Woods before a record TV audience on Sunday. Even as Woods turned back the clock with a blistering 62 in the final round, McIlroy remained steady as a rock to win the title by two strokes at the home of the dreaded Bear Trap.

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Clearly TV viewers were captivated by this past weekend’s ascension to World No. 1 by McIlroy - the perch occupied in perpetuity by Woods till his... er, problems. NBC’s coverage of McIlroy’s triumph at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens had the highest overnight rating in a decade, and was up 78 per cent from the final-round overnight rating for each of the last three years.

Even Saturday’s NBC’s third-round coverage on Saturday earned a 1.9 overnight rating, a gain of 27 per cent over last year and the best third-round overnight rating in four years (1.7/4 in 2008). It’s clear that the prospect of Woods finally rediscovering his mojo on the course was enough to drown out the latest noise tailing him, revelations in a book by his former teacher Hank Haney that Woods had talked about abandoning golf for a career with the Navy Seals. (More on that in a moment..)

Golf needs rivalries, and while Mickelson has always been a reluctant foil for Woods, it appears McIlroy is ready willing and able to engage Woods - even a Woods playing at the top of his game. It was remarkable to hear Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus and the other former stars on the NBC broadcast take in awed tones about McIlroy’s cool under the pressure of Woods’ assault and the brisk Florida breezes.

If you think any of this sets up the most anticipated Masters (after this week’s WGC Cadillac Tournament and Arnold Palmer Invitational) since Woods crashed his car and life in 2009, you are correct. The showdown at Augusta in early April could set TV viewing records for CBS - at a time when many felt the PGA Tour was in serious decline.

Who’d have predicted that in January when the best players in the world stayed away from the Tour and Woods was lost in his latest swing-change funk?

Lost In The Woods: Now for Woods’ little PR problem last week about the Navy Seals. Actually it’s the same PR problem Woods has had since his career was taken over by his handlers at IMG and lately by his long-time adviser/consultant Mark Steinberg at Excel Management. When Woods came into prominence as an 18-year-old ready to take on the world, he was given the full IMG treatment, perfected earlier on Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Woods was to be more than a golfer, he was to be a brand. And that brand would be the cold-blooded killer on the course, the golfing god who didn’t defeat rivals, he crushed them. He would also treat the press like so many caddies, brooking only the questions and opinions his handlers wanted.

Woods lived up to the brand conjured up by the clever marketing folks at IMG. The problem was that, while Palmer had enough personality for ten golfers and Nicklaus had a firm base in his real life, the young Tiger was a cipher, a golfing nerd who was defined by his father and the men around him who’d manufactured his greatness (and bestowed a fatal flaw in him). Beyond the course, there was no there there. As long as he soared over his opponents, the hollowness of the marketing image was hidden.

Then Woods hit the tree with his car, and the emptiness was revealed. You’d have hoped that the public humiliation, and the smashing of his image would have freed Woods to pursue a more human face to the world. But there he was last week, embracing the old Tiger The Terrible image as he huffed and puffed over the trivialities in Haney’s books. The televised image of Woods’ rictus smile as he stared down a dogged reporter was painful and dispiriting.

Can he never embrace his true self with the public - the one that cheered him Sunday - and move into a more comfortable sports middle age as Nicklaus did? Laugh at himself a bit, go on Saturday Night Live and have fun with his image? Instead he’s still staring down the world, even as McIlroy withstood his challenge on Sunday.

If you’re a true golf fan you might hope that Woods gets back to his old golf self. But if you care about the man, you should hope that he finds people to surround him who will see a man, not a brand, on the tee.

Burke’s Bark: This week’s episode of Burke’s Law has Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke hanging up the phone on CFRB Newstalk 1010 host John Moore who had the temerity to ask if Burke was worried that he might be close to the end of his stay in Toronto.

“I wish you'd told me before you asked me to do this interview that that was going to be your last question,” Burke replied. "A nice little cheap shot before you get off the air." Moore restated his question, leaving Burke to snort, "No, I don't... I think it's an ignorant question, and a gutless one, too." Then he hung up.

Honestly, you can’t make up this stuff.

Hodge Podge: The reviews on the latest Don Cherry movie, Wrath Of Grapes, shown Sunday on CBC were mixed. One of the facets of the film was the portrayal of Cherry’s first host on Coach’s Corner, Dave Hodge (now with TSN). The film makers choice to play Hodge left many scratching their heads. So we asked Hodge if he’d been consulted about the film.

“No contact or input re my character,” Hodge reported to us via e-mail. “But Jared Keeso (who played Cherry) did call me as part of his research on Don.” So how did he like the film and seeing himself on screen? “ Sorry to say I forgot it was on the other night and did not watch.”

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