Winning the tournament in 2009 shot the Northern Irishman to prominence. He tells John McAuley why the emirate is so special.
Q&A: Rory McIlroy calls Dubai ‘my home from home’
Five years ago this week, Rory McIlroy secured his long-anticipated first professional victory, triumphing by one shot over Justin Rose at the 2009 Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
As an amateur, McIlroy had been invited to play the event twice before – the 2007 Classic his first experience of a pro tournament – and his connection to Dubai has sustained as he regularly uses the Butch Harmon School of Golf as his pre-season base.
Ahead of the 25th Desert Classic, which begins on Thursday, the current world No 7 talks about his relationship with the event and the emirate.
q: Obviously you hold a special affinity with Dubai. Can you talk about coming here the first few years as an amateur?
a: “I don’t hide the fact I’m really fond of Dubai; it’s a special place and somewhere I call my ‘home from home’. That affinity stemmed from my time here as an amateur and has stayed with me ever since. Having always felt welcome here helped form the decision I made a number of years ago to make Dubai the hub of my pre-season preparation.
Playing as an amateur a couple of times in the Desert Classic before my win made a great impact on me and, in a way, was a steep learning curve.
Here I was, 16 or 17 years old, playing against some of the top players in the world. I was a little star-struck, but rubbing shoulders with the guys I’d seen only on TV, whose games I’d studied in detail, sharpened my focus and allowed me a glimpse of a world I wanted to be part of in my own right.”
q: While competing as an amateur at the 2008 event, you sneaked inside the ropes with a photographer’s camera just to get a closer look at Tiger Woods. Now you come here as a friend and one of his biggest rivals. Can you describe that progression, and how the relationship has developed?
a: “Ha, that was a little cheeky. I was young and in awe of all Tiger had done so, just in case the opportunity didn’t come my way again, I thought I’d push my luck a bit. It was worth it to see for myself Tiger’s great ball-striking and get a sense of the presence he has on the course.
Today, it’s different, naturally. While I enjoy the rivalry, we’ve also become friendly as a result of being drawn together or pitched against one another in matchplay.
My climb up the rankings in the last few years has determined many of our on-course encounters, and there’s our sponsor commitments, too. Perhaps more than any other golfers, there are times when our schedules dictate joint ventures and time in each other’s company.”
q: The Classic’s coffee pot trophy sits on the living-room floor of your Florida home. What is the significance of that, and how did it end up there?
a: “The trophy was one of the first pieces of silverware I had shipped to Florida from Northern Ireland. The decision to put it on the living-room floor was to do with how beautiful the trophy is as a piece of furniture. I also like it as a reminder of my first win as a professional, and how important that was in shaping the golfer I was to become. And I don’t have a shelf in my cabinet for a trophy of those dimensions.”
q: You had come so close to a first pro win in 2008, when you lost in play-offs at both the European Masters and the Hong Kong Open. How important then was it to finally get over the line in Dubai?
a: “Looking back on those events, in a strange kind of way it was maybe important I didn’t win them. The experience of having come so close and letting it slip away taught me a valuable lesson. Yet it only had value because I took from those disappointments an understanding of where I went wrong and was able to eradicate the mistakes in later tournaments.
The Desert Classic victory was a case in point: I’d learnt from the earlier frustrations. Getting the job done in Dubai was the clearing of any self-doubt and a statement of my abilities as a young pro.”
q: You could tell from your reaction on the 18th hole how much that first win mean. What is your most vivid memory of the victory and what was the greatest thing you learnt from it?
a: “The image of my putt rolling in on 18 is etched on my mind. It was fast, downhill, but I’d played a great bunker shot to get to within a few feet. That gave me some confidence standing over the putt. Having had chances in the past and not taken them, I knew how important it was to put it to bed; I felt it was my time.
Among other things, I learnt that winning takes a special mental strength. Confidence and self-belief are major factors in that, but there’s also a need to be dogged, tenacious and realise that simply hanging in there to the bitter end might just see you through.”
q: You had a six-shot lead that was whittled to one, with Justin Rose chasing you hard. Having registered three consecutive bogeys from the 15th, how was the pressure coming down to the 18th, and what was going through your mind at that stage?
a: “What I learnt from earlier disappointments helped me deal with the 18th on Sunday. At the time, it was about keeping the ball in play and forcing others to take risks to catch me. Justin chipping away at my lead (and me handing him a couple) was on my mind, but I knew it was about what I needed to do rather than dwelling on how others were playing.”
q: Having first come here as an amateur, and flying under the radar in 2009, you arrive back this week as a double major champion and with your image adorning advertising billboards on Sheikh Zayed Road. How does that make you feel? How do you handle the increased expectation?
a: “I’m always a little taken aback seeing myself on billboards and displayed on the sides of buildings. Not in a bad or disconcerting way, but I sometimes have to double-check to make sure I’m not seeing things. And, yeah, with it comes with the heightened expectation to perform well and justify having your name in lights. For me, it’s also a motivational thing, a challenge even.”
q: A lot has happened to you since that first victory, both professionally and personally. What is the main difference between the Rory in 2009 and the one that returns this week, both as a player and a person?
a: “I’m now a tour-harden veteran and seasoned campaigner. Joking aside, so much has happened to me since my win here.
Back then, it was all about securing the first victory and proving to myself and others that I had made the transition from amateur to professional; it was about providing evidence that my early potential had substance and depth when it mattered.
Call it naivety, eagerness or being a little overzealous, but at 19 my desire to compete against the best in the world gave me a determination to succeed. I can say with complete honesty there exists very little difference between then and now, yet with one notable exception: patience.
All being well, I’ve an abundance of golfing years ahead of me.
I’m learning to factor into that equation not an urgency of purpose, but a long-term strategy for enduring success.”
q: You have had a lot of success on the course since then: two majors, multiple wins, and players-of-the-year awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Where does that Dubai victory rank, and why?
a: “Winning the Desert Classic really is up there for me in terms of important victories. A first win is always special, but that it happened to be in Dubai, home of my main sponsor (Jumeirah Group) and where I was treated so well as an amateur, gave it a lot more meaning.
Mum and dad being there meant so much. I felt it was also a win for them, something I could give back for their emotional investment in me – I’m sure they’ll say financial as well – from as far back as I could remember.”
q: You dropped the tournament from your schedule last year and have spoken often about that not being the best decision – why was that and how big an impact did it have on your season?
a: “I think there will always be times when I look back and say: ‘I probably should have taken on another event’, or ‘I took on too much early in the season’. My schedule is planned with meticulous care and the decisions at the time are carefully thought out. Deciding to miss one tournament in favour of another is part of a strategy of finite resources and one in which I attempt to target the greatest opportunities for potential wins.
I can’t say that the choice to miss any single tournament is in itself detrimental, nor can it greatly alter the outcome of an entire season. That said, though, and with the beauty of hindsight, I think there was an attempt on my part to do too much, too quickly, and that introducing such all-encompassing change could have been rolled out over a more protracted period.”
q: Strangely, you are a Desert Classic veteran at 24. How much are you looking forward to getting back to the tournament, especially with it being its 25th anniversary?
a: “I can’t wait. There’s definitely going to be a special element to it this year. I’ve been here a few weeks now doing a lot of pre-season preparation and I’d say there is a buzz of excitement already building. And there’s always great support. I can think of no better start to the season than getting my hands on that coffee pot trophy come Sunday. I have company for it in Florida.”