World No 1 Tiger Woods believes Rory McIlroy is becoming his strongest rival ahead of the 77th Masters Tournament in Augusta.
Woods will be chasing a fifth Green Jacket when he tees up alongside Luke Donald and Scott Piercy in the opening round on Thursday.
McIlroy was keen to play down any talk of a rivalry between the two but Woods, who reclaimed top spot in the rankings from the Northern Irishman in March, had no such reservations.
“I think that over the course of my career, I’ve had a few (rivals). Certainly Rory is this generation’s,” the 14-time major-winner said.
“I’ve had Phil (Mickelson) and Vijay (Singh) and Ernie (Els) and David (Duval) for a number of years, and now Rory’s leading this new, younger generation.”
McIlroy has won two majors in the last two years and is widely regarded as Woods’ successor as the world’s premier golf star, but the 23-year-old believes he does not quite measure up yet.
Even though he is now back on top of the rankings, Woods has been stuck on 14 majors since winning the US Open in 2008, since when his career has been disrupted by injuries, loss of form and well-publicised personal issues.
Swing changes made to protect his injury-prone left knee under the guidance of Sean Foley have paid off with three wins already this season and he goes into the Masters as the man to beat.
Woods turned 37 at the end of last year but insists he is still as focused as ever breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles.
“I would like to be able to get to that point. It took Jack a while to get to 18, all the way until he was 46 years old. So there’s plenty of opportunities for me,” he said.
“I put myself in the mix here every year but last year, it’s not like I’ve been out of there with no chance of winning this championship.”
Woods added: “I’ve been there and unfortunately just haven’t got it done. I’ve made runs to get myself in it. I’ve been there in the mix on the back nine, either not executed, not made enough putts or didn’t take care of the par fives or whatever it may be.
“But the whole idea is to give myself opportunities and, as of right now, I’m tied for second on the all-time win list here - he and Arnold Palmer have four, Nicklaus won six - so that’s not too bad, either.
“That’s one of the neat things about our career, it’s so long. We have an opportunity to play basically 30 years solidly at a high level. We have very expansive careers and I feel like I’m basically right in the middle of mine. I have a lot of good years ahead of me and I’m excited about this week.”