By Simon Evans
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - If there is to be a series of head-to-head battles between Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods in the years ahead it does not sound like there will be much in the way of trash talk to stimulate the hype.
In fact, Woods is talking up McIlroy in the build-up to this week's Masters, arguing that his young rival can have an extended reign of glory in the game.
McIlroy returns to Augusta this week, a year on from his disastrous final round where he let a four-stroke lead vanish in the final round as he collapsed to an eight-over par 80.
The Northern Irishman's response to that ordeal was to storm to victory two months later at the U.S. Open by eight strokes and his rise up to world number two has impressed many, including Woods.
"The way he plays, and I think the way he handles himself out there on the golf course, how competitive he is, he's very feisty. It's what you have to be out here," Woods told reporters on Tuesday.
"He has all of the makings of being a great champion for a long period of time. We have seen obviously what he did last year at the Masters and how he came back at the Open. He led, what, seven out of eight rounds in major championships? Which is pretty impressive," added the former world number one.
"So he just needs to get more experienced. That's just from playing. He's put himself there. Seems like every single tournament he plays in, he's in the top 10 and that's great to see," he added.
Woods's best ever final round score of 62 was made as he chased McIlroy this March at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach and while the Northern Irishman held on for a win that briefly sent him to the top of the world rankings, the contest excited those who hope for a ‘Rory-Tiger' rivalry.
When Woods, 36, ended his 30-month winless streak on the PGA Tour with a victory at Bay Hill last month, the excited talk ahead of the Masters grew louder.
McIlroy, 22, says everyone in the game benefits from the return of Tiger.
"I think it is great for the tournament and great for the game of golf that Tiger is back playing well.
"He creates excitement that no one else in the game can. A lot of people want to see him make history and it looks like he is back on track to maybe going and doing that," McIlroy said, referring to Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major wins.
"I'm just looking forward to hopefully getting myself in contention and giving myself a chance and maybe coming up against the best player, maybe the best player ever. Definitely the best player of the last 20 years."
(Reporting By Simon Evans)