x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Rory McIlroy makes short drive but long trip from Abu Dhabi to Dubai

The world number one's season has taken him around the globe, to the top of the rankings and back here to the UAE, writes John McAuley.

Rory McIlroy, above right, started off well, winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, .
Rory McIlroy, above right, started off well, winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, .

Abu Dhabi to Dubai measures only 130 kilometres, but in the rapidly emergent career of Rory McIlroy it represents a considerable journey; one paved with gold.

From the National Course to this week's coronation at Jumeirah Golf Estates, the emirates have bookended a season when prodigious potential was fulfilled and expectations surpassed. McIlroy, 23, has piled his 2012 with more than most golfers collect in a lifetime.

World and European No 1, winner of a second career major, champion on money lists on both sides of the Atlantic: it has been a wildly glorious 11 months for the still absurdly young star.

In January, McIlroy arrived at theAbu Dhabi HSBC Championship and recounted a tale of how, at the 2006 Dubai Desert Classic, he had coaxed a camera from a photographer simply to sneak inside the ropes and catch a closer glimpse of Tiger Woods.

Six years later, the capital provided the setting for golf's latest luminary to confront its previous paragon, McIlroy emerging one shot and one place better off. It sparked a recurring theme.

"I grew up idolising Tiger so it's a great thrill to be playing with him," he said having shared the opening two rounds in Abu Dhabi. "I enjoy the buzz of the crowd, the excitement."

McIlroy forms the sole focus of that hum on Sunday, when upon the conclusion of the DP World Tour Championship Dubai he will be anointed the Race to Dubai champion.

It was McIlroy's early season runner-up finish in nearby Abu Dhabi that instigated his assault, vaulting him, too, to second in the world rankings. He would ascend the summit five weeks later, rendering redundant a final-round 62 from Woods to lift the Honda Classic title - his third victory on the US PGA Tour.

"Even if I don't play my best golf I can still challenge," said McIlroy, sounding eerily like Woods in his pomp. "When I'm firing on all cylinders I feel like I'm hard to beat."

It was not merely bravado, his climb to becoming the second youngest world No 1 of all time, behind Woods, was soon endorsed by a man of major pedigree.

"There's very few players as good at him at his age winning tournaments," said Padraig Harrington. "There are guys with potential, but he's already delivered. He looks like he's going to be here for a while."

If golf seemed set for a prolonged period of McIlroy supremacy - he finished third at the WGC-Cadillac and lost a play-off in the Wells Fargo either side of a modest US Masters - an early summer slump startled him from his reverie.

Four missed cuts in five events, the last of which relinquished meekly his US Open crown, were not in keeping with McIlroy's rapid rise.

Amid suggestions of distraction by his increasing fame and tennis star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, he said candidly: "I may have taken my eye off the ball a little bit".

That 2011 Masters collapse aside, McIlroy faced his sternest test as a professional. Solutions were sought in the announcement Michael Bannon, the architect of his enviable swing and a trusty confidant, would join the team full-time, and although tied-60 at the ensuing British Open disappointed, McIlroy's season was about to ignite again.

At the US PGA Championship, he led going into Sunday and, dressed potently in Woods red, attacked Kiawah Island's testing Ocean Course.

A second major was secured by an aching margin of eight strokes, surpassing the tournament record set in 1980 by Jack Nicklaus. Now the youngest since Seve Ballesteros to collect two of the game's grand titles, McIlroy had also achieved the feat at four months younger than Woods.

"I'm speechless" was all he could muster afterwards, yet Woods, never fulsome in praise of his rivals, chose to elaborate.

"He's got all the talent in the world to do what he's doing," Woods said. "This is the way Rory can play. When he gets going, it's pretty impressive to watch."

The Woods narrative continued through to the FedEx Cup, when the top two in the standings began the play-offs in partnership.

McIlroy, again, proved the victor, recording back-to-back wins at the Deutsche Bank and BMW Championships.

Ultimately, Brandt Snedeker's scorching putter would deny him the cup and its US$10 million (Dh36.7m) prize, but the American could soon be heard extolling the talents of McIlroy.

"I look at it as how good is your good?" Snedeker said. "Everybody can be pretty good when they're on, but how good is it? His good may be some of the best ever."

And so to the Ryder Cup, Snedeker and his compatriots gazumped by Europe's epic comeback at Medinah, a triumph rooted in McIlroy's partnership late on Saturday with Ian Poulter, and then helped in Sunday's singles by his halting of the Keegan Bradley freight train. McIlroy's warm-up consisted of only a few practice putts and swings to loosen limbs.

The settlement, two weeks early, of the Race to Dubai therefore constitutes a fitting finale to the most remarkable of seasons. Third place at the Singapore Open proved enough, McIlroy, in typically modest mood, revealing he was "proud and humbled" by his latest achievement.

Becoming the youngest European No 1 since Sandy Lyle 32 years previously was an accolade quickly added to those already accrued; various acts that ensure his name is now regularly whispered alongside Nicklaus, Woods and Ballesteros.

Yet the year has not been without criticism - lately, McIlroy has been scolded for chasing appearance fees and drew sponsors' ire with his decision to sit out this month's WGC-HSBC Champions - and uncertainty surrounds his apparently imminent, and hugely lucrative, switch to Nike, when he will have two months to become acquainted with new equipment.

However, there is a wise head on young shoulders.

"One of the biggest things for me is longevity," said McIlroy in a recent interview with CNN. "I'm 23 and still have a lot of years ahead of me. I don't want to be burnt out.

"I don't want to get to the stage when I'm 30 or 35 and, I'm not saying fed up with the game, but it's a long time to be playing a sport. I just want to pace myself."

Given a stellar 2012, when McIlroy not only reigned supreme but separated himself from the sport's most dominant figure, he may not be afforded the opportunity.

A dreamy voyage that began in Abu Dhabi and ends in Dubai has already cast thoughts to next season and 2013 has the potential to be even better than the campaign that went before it.

 

jmcauley@thenational.ae

Michael Hoey, s6