Northern Irishman, who has happy memories in Dubai, is focused on continuing his comeback from rehabilitation and setting up what he hopes would be a more successful 2019
Rory McIlroy determined to revive 'B-minus' season at DP World Tour Championship
After, by his own admission, letting a tournament slip through his fingers in Dubai earlier this year, Rory McIlroy is keen to make amends upon his return to the emirate this week.
Dubai remains a special place for the Northern Irishman. At different points, it has provided a home or a regular training base. The launchpad, too, to a four-time major winner’s career, supplying the scene of his first professional victory, at the Dubai Desert Classic in 2009.
This past January, McIlroy went close to capturing the trophy for a third time – he triumphed in 2015 as well – but spurned a two-shot lead with eight holes to play on Sunday to eventually lose to China’s Li Haotong.
Now back for this week’s DP World Tour Championship, the European Tour's season finale in which he has won twice already, McIlroy is seeking to round off a “B-minus” season on a positive note.
“Dubai has been a great place for me over the years,” he said on Tuesday. “It's basically where I launched my career. Had my first win here. I was a resident in the UAE for four years, so I have a lot of history and a lot of great memories here. So it's good to be back, especially after missing this tournament [through injury] last year.
"I played earlier in the year at the Desert Classic and feel like I let one slip away there. So I guess it would be nice to get one win in Dubai this year and end the year on a high.”
For most, McIlroy’s 2018 would represent more than a decent campaign. He has 10 top 10s, finished second in the British Open and played in the final group at the US Masters. In fact, he formed part of Sunday final pairings six times this season, but as of yet has a solitary victory to show for it, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in March.
So a B-minus it is, then. Although, lifting a third trophy at Jumeirah Golf Estates would just about improve that overall grade.
“I don't know. I'd maybe give it a B-minus, and a win this week would get it up to a B,” said McIlroy, a former world No 1 who sits seventh in the standings. “From where I started 2018 to where I finish, it is a step in the right direction.
"Coming off an injury last year I missed this tournament. I was rehabbing. I dropped outside the top 10 in the world.
"I have got myself back inside there and I’ve spent most of the year inside the top five in the world, and it’s just a journey back to where I want to be, which is at the top of the game. So, it’s step in the right direction.
"There were a couple of missteps along the way, but then a good off-season – I am working on a few things – and hopefully I can rectify that next year.”
Primarily, getting over the line when in place to win.
Thankfully, McIlroy has been in that position plenty on the Earth Course. In 2012, he birdied the final five holes, memorably, to win the tournament and confirm the Race to Dubai title, while three years later he went head-to-head down the stretch with Andy Sullivan, coming out on top thanks in large part to an incredible bogey-save on the penultimate green.
“Two great memories," McIlroy said. "Hopefully I can create some more this week."
For that, McIlroy understands he needs to drive the ball well, normally his greatest weapon. His campaign has been blighted somewhat by his struggles off the tee, and so he has a new driver in the bag this week to help his quest for silverware.
It worked well in Sun City last week en route to a tied-21st, he said, and in Tuesday’s Pro-Am, so that offers some encouragement for Thursday’s big tee-off.
“The driver is a huge club around here,” McIlroy said. “And if you hit it pretty accurately, you're going to have a big advantage over the rest of the field.”
And then, come Sunday, 2018 is gone and the focus shifts to 2019, aside from two weddings to attend next month. In a departure from his typical schedule, McIlroy will miss January's events at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA and then in Dubai; in actuality, after the DP World Tour Championship, he will play once in 13 weeks.
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“The way the schedule has worked for next year, it is going to be different for a lot of guys," McIlroy said, in reference to the revised calendar highlighted by the US PGA Championship’s bump up to May and the BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour’s flagship event, being pushed back to September.
“Everything is going to be so condensed between March and August, and that’s why I'm taking a big off-season to get myself ready, to have that break to then go at it hard from March all the way through to basically the end of the season."
Asked if that means remaining a member of both the European and PGA Tour - a regulation implemented this year states failure to retain membership (minimum four regular European Tour events) prevents a player from being Ryder Cup captain in future - McIlroy added: “I don’t know. Right now I’ve got two events on my schedule in Europe and I don’t have to commit to that until next year.
"I'm starting my year off in the States [Tournament of Champions] and that will be the big focus of mine up until the end of August and then we will assess from there.
“I guess my thing is that I want to play against the strongest fields week-in and week-out, and for the most part of the season that is in America. If I want to continue to contend in the majors, and to continue my journey back towards the top of the game, then that’s what I want to do.
“But yep, right now that is all sort of up in the air."