RORY McILROY says Tiger Woods will walk away from the game as the ultimate golfer if his injury problems bring a premature end to his career.
McIlroy believes Woods raised golf to a new level, even though he is destined to finish four short of Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record of 18 Major victories.
Woods, 41, is currently assistant captain of the US team at the Presidents Cup — but admitted on Wednesday his fourth back operation could be the end of the road.
McIlroy said: “If he doesn’t play again, he’s been the greatest player I’ve ever seen.
“He probably played the greatest golf that anyone in my lifetime has seen.
“I mean, I didn’t really see Jack play — Jack has a better record — but I don’t know if he played better golf.
“But look, if this is it, Tiger doesn’t have anything to prove. He can walk away from this game with his head held extremely high. He’s done wonders for this game.
“I don’t think there’s a single figure in golf who did more for the game in terms of bringing different groups of people into the game — different ethnicities, age groups.
“He made golf cool in the Nineties, when it really needed an injection of something. So he’s a legend and, if this is it, everyone should just applaud what a career he’s had.”
Four-time Major champion McIlroy, 28, has grown close to Woods and added: “Only he knows whether he can do it and he’s taking it very slowly. I spent a bit of time with him the past few months and, you know, he’s waiting on doctors to tell him when he can do things.
“He’ll take their advice and not be quite as stubborn as he was maybe back in the day.”
McIlroy has had his own injury problems for most of this year could end it on a high as he shot a three-under-par 67 in the British Masters.
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That still left him four shots behind joint leaders George Coetzee of South Africa and resurgent Englishman Tyrrell Hatton, who bagged five birdies in the final seven holes for his 63.
Hatton, 25, was one of the hottest players on the planet this time last year, after his victory in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship — a title he will defend next week — highlighted a run of eye-catching displays.
He carried that into 2017, with three top-four finishes taking him to world No 14.
But five missed cuts in a row had him tearing his hair out in frustration.
Joint-third at the European Masters in Switzerland this month turned Hatton’s fortunes — and he credited boyhood pal Jonathan Bell, his new caddie.
Hatton said: “I’ve known Jonathan since I was seven and asked him to come on the bag until the end of the year.
“He’s a golf pro as well and he wants to make some money to finance a tilt at the EuroPro Tour next year, where the guys have to contribute to the prize fund.
“Golf suddenly seemed fun again in Switzerland — it was the same thing here.
“I started listening to too many opinions about what we going wrong instead of just accepting we are all going to have phases where golf can seem a lot tougher.
“Hopefully, I’m through that. The better I do, the more Jonathan can put away, so it’s a win-win situation.”
Another Englishman attracting plenty of support was Robin Tiger Williams.
The amateur, 16, recovered from two early bogeys to shoot a highly respectable 71.
His highlight was a chip-in for birdie at the 16th and he grinned: “It was a real rush of adrenaline. The crowd were, shouting ‘Go on Tiger’ It was fantastic.”
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