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For Rory McIlroy, a role reversal

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- His first trip to play golf in this part of the world is remembered more for what he did after a round than during it.

Rory McIlroy was just a 16-year-old amateur in 2006, more than a year away from his true emergence as a future star, when he was invited to play in the Dubai Desert Classic.

Although his golf was unremarkable, the first day of the tournament certainly was not, as he got an up-close view of Tiger Woods.

"I played in the morning and Tiger was out in the afternoon,'' McIlroy recalled. "I went out to follow him and stole one of the camera guy's cameras so I was able to get inside the ropes.''

McIlroy said this with a mischievous grin, as if he got away with something. But he remembers watching greatness, too, the ultimate reason for securing such privileges. At the time, he could only dream of getting closer to the game's No. 1 player, both in proximity and performance.

On Thursday, a little farther south in the United Arab Emirates, McIlroy needs no special credentials to step inside with Woods at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Along with No. 1-ranked Luke Donald, McIlroy will play with Woods for the first two rounds at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. They will tee off at 10:40 p.m. ET on Wednesday night and 3:05 a.m. ET on Friday.

It is the first time that Woods, winner of 14 majors, and reigning U.S. Open winner McIlroy will be paired in an official tournament. They played together during the second round of the Chevron World Challenge.

They are among 11 of the top 25 in the world who kick off the European Tour's Gulf Swing.

And while many are keen to see how Woods performs in 2012 now that he is healthy and coming off an unofficial win at the Chevron, they are also keen to see if McIlroy can build on an impressive season that saw him win the U.S. Open and later the Hong Kong Open.

"The goals for the season, every year since I turned pro, I've just tried to improve, just tried to get a little bit better,'' said McIlroy, who is ranked third in the world behind Donald and Lee Westwood. "Either at one aspect of the game or overall or consistency, or maybe putting in a little bit more work here and there.''

That progression is now in its fifth full season, a rather remarkable thought given that McIlroy is just 22. He turned pro at age 17.

Woods, 36, marveled at McIlroy's veteran status, given his youth. The two played a nine-hole practice round together on Tuesday, and Woods was surprised to learn that the Northern Irishman had never experienced the thrill of playing with the late Seve Ballesteros.

"His generation missed that,'' said Woods, who talked shop with McIlroy during their time together, before learning they'd be grouped for the first two rounds.

Woods explained that during his youthful beginnings as an amateur and pro, he sought out players such as Ballesteros to pick up pointers. Ballesteros was particularly adept at the short game, and Woods described him as the most talented golfer he has seen.

Those are the kinds of words thrown around about McIlroy, whose eight-stroke U.S. Open victory at Congressional had more than a few comparing him to Woods. Much more needs to be done, of course, for such comments to stick. Woods has more than 80 worldwide wins, while McIlroy has but four.

"Definitely, the first time I played with Tiger I was a little nervous,'' said McIlroy. That was less than two years ago, during a Skins Game with Jack Nicklaus at the Memorial Tournament. And McIlroy shot 70 to Woods' 66 at the 2010 Chevron.

"You've watched this guy on TV your whole life winning majors and doing things that no one thought possible," McIlroy added. "So you're going to be a little awestruck.''

Rounding out the group will be Donald, who is coming off a season in which he won the money title on both the PGA and European tours and solidified his spot atop the rankings.

Donald has plenty of experience playing with Woods, although not recently.

"There's a little bit more of an atmosphere,'' Donald said. "You're going to feel a little bit differently. Certainly my experiences over the last few years -- and I have played with him quite a few times in the past -- that feeling of being intimidated certainly dissipates.''

It has been a long time since Woods has intimidated anyone, but it has also been a long time since he has been fully fit, both mentally and physically.

He looks to pick up where he left off last month at the Chevron World Challenge, where his unofficial victory was his first anywhere in more than two years. Now ranked 25th in the world, it is Woods who is looking to fight his way into McIlroy's group -- which is to say challenging for the top spot in the world.

McIlroy's journey to No. 1 is not as far, and it will be interesting to see if he can make up ground on Donald -- and keep Woods at bay.

"The rankings are a byproduct of what you do,'' Woods said. "I'd rather just concentrate on trying to win tournaments and trying to improve as a player, and if I happen to do that, then hopefully the ranking will take care of itself.''

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.