Back to ‘where it all began’ as Rory McIlroy bids for second Dubai Desert Classic title
DUBAI // Rory McIlroy had a glance around Emirates Golf Club on Wednesday, turned to caddie JP Fitzgerald and took stock of the then and now.
“I said to JP, it’s been six years since that win,” McIlroy said. “Hasn’t been a bad six years.”
Not only the master of his craft, McIlroy is a dab hand at searing understatement, too. Six years may have passed since his breakthrough victory at the 2009 Omega Dubai Desert Classic, but a lifetime worth of achievement seems to have been crammed into the intervening period.
Competing at the tournament this week for the ninth time, McIlroy returns as the game’s top dog, reigning European Tour Order of Merit champion and a four-time major winner. It has not been bad, at all.
“I guess it was where it all began,” he said. “When you get your first win, you feel like you move to a different level. Which is nice.”
Nice is one way of describing it. McIlroy’s affinity with the event is such that it facilitates plenty of reminiscence each time he returns, despite the Northern Irishman being a matter of months younger than the tournament itself.
Triumphing back then at age 19 – a nerve-wracking, one-shot success over Justin Rose – McIlroy would have been forgiven for being caught up in the hullabaloo immediately afterwards. However, he stopped short of conjuring dreamy days of yet more titles and trinkets.
“I’ve never really thought that far ahead to be honest,” he said. “Sort of just taken it week-by-week, year-by-year. But did I think back then I would be sitting here having achieved what I have? Probably not.”
Those feats could be burnished by the collection of a Green Jacket this April, as McIlroy attempts to complete the career grand slam with the Masters crown. Augusta has figured prominently in his thoughts since August’s win at the US PGA Championship, and the world No 1 concedes the closer it gets the more the excitement begins to bite.
There is much to do in between, though. After this week, McIlroy has a high-prolife court case to tackle and then a number of tournaments Stateside, but such has been his beginning to the season that he would happily head down Magnolia Lane instead. At the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship earlier this month - his 2015 debut - McIlroy’s putting was the only reason he could not convert a runner-up finish into a trophy.
“I guess maybe there’s a few things that I’m happy with my game that, say, if Augusta was to roll round next week, I’d be happy going there knowing I’m hitting the ball the way I want to,” he said.
“But it’s important just to put in some good performances before that, get into contention and feel what it’s like in the heat of the moment. Because that’s when you really know how your game is and how it holds up under pressure.”
If events in Abu Dhabi taught anything, it is that the strain can affect even the best. Martin Kaymer’s stunning collapse last week was as uncharacteristic as it was unexpected, when the three-time tournament winner blew a 10-shot lead with 13 holes to play.
Kaymer faced the media in Dubai on Tuesday, where he referenced McIlroy’s capitulation at the 2011 Masters, and his subsequent rebound at the US Open months later, as evidence such negative experiences can quickly attach a positive bent. With the surrender of a four-shot lead four years ago at Augusta still vivid, McIlroy tends to agree.
“It was the most important day of my career, bar none,” he said. “Because if I had not have had that happen to me, who knows where I would’ve been. You learn way more from those days than you do from your victories.”
McIlroy, 25, will soon acquire an intimate knowledge of the Irish legal system. Immediately following the Desert Classic – an event he says he would be disappointed not to win - he returns to Dublin to embark upon a court case with his former management company. Yet he imagines it will not represent too much of a distraction this week.
“To be honest, I’ve been concentrating on this,” he said. “This stuff’s much more important to me than what’s going to happen next week. I’m fully focused on this event. Of course [I want to draw a line under it]. It’s a very tedious and nasty process at times.”
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