Tiger Woods (left) and Rory McIlroy (right) pose during the 2013 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship photo call at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club on Tuesday. Image Credit: Hadrian Hernandez/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: It’s a friendship that started here last year between the top two golfers in the world and Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods are keen to keep it that way, though the golfing fraternity the world over are expecting it to pan out into an intense rivalry on the course.

McIlroy, the world number one was on Monday night unveiled as the latest Nike brand ambassador - a role that Woods has donned since 1996 and the 14-time Grand Slam winner said the young Irishman fully deserved to be part of that family.

Speaking at yesterday’s media briefing ahead of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship that starts on Thursday, Woods said: “He’s had a tremendous year, won a Major Championship, on top of that, came to our Nike family.”

While acknowledging the bonding with McIlroy, Woods however dismissed the rivalry talk between the two and said that will take time.

“It started here last year. I played the front nine with him last year on a Tuesday, and I think we were paired together first three days. Yeah, we’ve certainly hit it off and our relationship has grown and our friendship has got better,” he said.

“Over the course of my career, I’ve gone head-to-head against I think Ernie [Els] and Vijay [Singh] the most. That’s happened what over 17 years and we’ve been going at it like that. But it takes time.”

“And certainly, I think that we [Woods and McIlroy] have done it once at Honda, BMW a little bit this year, but you know, we haven’t really had the amount of matches that are head-to-head duels that I’ve had with Phil [Mickelson] and Vijay and Ernie. But then again, it’s only been a few years, so let’s just give it time and see how it pans out,” Woods said.

Speaking later, McIlroy also confirmed that his friendship with Woods had progressed beyond a mere hello in passing in the last one year.

“Yeah, we have spent more time together, which started here last year, just because we have been paired in tournaments; and if not been paired, been in tee times that are close to each other and seen each other on the range a lot or whatever. It’s been great; it’s been great to get to know him,” said the world number one.

“Before this time last year, we would say hello in passing but not really anything else. I think once Tiger sort of gets to know you and trusts you, I guess, and lets you in, and then it’s great. We get on really well. We share the same interests. We are both big sports fans and that’s sort of the bulk of our conversations is about sport,” he said.

McIlroy grew up idolising Woods and said he was happy that he has earned his hero’s respect.

“It’s great to just spend time with him and pick his brain about a few things if I feel I need to, but it’s a relationship that’s definitely based on respect, because you know, he’s been a huge hero of mine growing up and he’s done some incredible things in golf. I think he respects me for what I’ve done on the golf course, too. So it’s good,” McIlroy said.

While the world waits for this friendship to turn into an intense rivalry on the golf course, the world’s top two are, for the present, just enjoying their friendship.