AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It was going to be Tiger and Phil. And then Tiger and Sergio. Or was Sergio first?
Regardless, golf's next great rivalry, the next Nicklaus-Watson, the next duel in the sun, well, it has never really come to fruition.
There is hope for Tiger and Rory as the 76th Masters begins.
If Tiger Woods' recent victory at Bay Hill was the signal that swing changes have taken root, that his putting woes have ended, that injuries have healed, that several years of personal turmoil have finally scabbed over, then there is hope.
Rory McIlroy is not yet 23, but seemingly a veteran and already a major champion. It would be easy to call him the Next Great Thing, except the word "next" may be a misnomer. Rory may already be there, although last summer's U.S. Open crown can't be the end of it.
That it was the start of it takes us back to last year's Masters, when it looked as if McIlroy would break through. Instead, he broke down.
McIlroy had played brilliantly, was 12-under, and led by four shots entering the final round. By the time he made the turn, it was down to a single stroke, and that went up in smoke as he went down in flames with a stretch of triple-bogey, bogey, double-bogey starting with No. 10, where his drive was closer to cabins buried in the woods than it was the fairway.
"I learned a lot," McIlroy said. "I think one of the things I learned was that as a person and a golfer I wasn't ready to win the Masters, wasn't ready to win a major. The big thing for me is it was a huge learning curve, a learning experience, and I took a lot from it and was able to put some of the things I learned into practice very quickly."
Quickly ... as in winning the Open by eight shots about two months later.
Woods and McIlroy are the two most-talked-about players this week, which is odd only because when Rory won last summer's U.S. Open, Woods said the two had never even met.
"I was very, very impressed," Woods said of the way McIlroy recovered from his Masters disappointment. "I didn't really know much about him. I had not played golf with him yet, so I had not seen it. But it was cool to see someone learn from their mistakes like that and apply it. That was some pretty impressive playing at the Open."
Phil Mickelson, a three-time champion who for some reason is pretty much an afterthought in the lead-up to his favorite event, sees the same future for McIlroy.
"I think he's an incredible player," Lefty said. "And you could tell when he first came out that he was going to be an incredible player. He plays without fear, (and) if he ends up learning this golf course I think he's going to win here a number of times."
Few know Augusta better than Mickelson and Woods. Tiger is bidding to become just the second golfer -- Jack Nicklaus being the other -- to win a fifth green jacket.
He had given signs of improved play, but was on a 30-month tour-victory drought when he finally broke through in Arnold Palmer's tournament at Bay Hill last month.
"Look, I think it's great for the tournament, great for the game of golf that Tiger is back playing well," McIlroy said. "He creates excitement that no one else in the game can."
Sounds like it has some rivalry potential, eh?