The four-time major winner re-charged during a three-month break and looked rested and ready during his 2018 debut in Abu Dhabi
By John Feinstein
For the seventh time in eight years, Rory McIlroy finished in the top three Sunday in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. And, yet again, he didn’t win.
Except he did win. His two-under-par 70 in the final round at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club wasn’t good enough to beat Tommy Fleetwood—who went on a back-nine rampage—or Ross Fisher, but it was good enough for a tie for third place, pretty good for a guy who hadn’t teed it up for real since Oct. 8 (102 days to be precise) when he finished T-63 at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
While many in the golf world went ga-ga last month when Tiger Woods finished T-9 in an 18-man field in an exhibition, McIlroy’s 69-66-65-70 in a real tournament against a quality field is worthy of note. Woods will get his chance to play for real this coming week in San Diego. Should he finish T-3—or anything close to that—it is entirely possible the PGA Tour will award him the Player of the Year Award on the spot.
McIlroy almost hung up his clubs for the year last summer after the PGA Championship in August. If he had somehow won at Quail Hollow, he wouldn’t have bothered with the PGA Tour playoffs. “If I can win there,” he said the week prior to making the trip to Charlotte, “then all of a sudden I’ll have had a successful year. I can go home and get the rest I need with a smile on my face.”
McIlroy knew that wasn’t likely (he finished T-22) because the rib injury he had suffered in February was still bothering him. “It’s not like I can’t play,” he said. “It’s just not 100 percent and won’t be until I shut it down for a while.”
Now, having shut it down for more than three months, it appears McIlroy might be ready to be McIlroy again. His schedule for 2018 is ambitious, especially leading to the Masters, which he desperately wants to win to complete the career Grand Slam. Because he’s been a factor on the international scene for so long, it is easy to forget McIlroy is only 28. In his mind, he still has a lot to do.
Which is why he backed off from playing the last few events last fall in the Race to Dubai. He and his wife, Erica, had bought a home in Florida from Ernie Els, and their plan was to spend the fall working on a major renovation. It’s difficult for any player to simply stop playing for an extended period, which is why many come back too soon from injuries. (see Woods, Tiger). McIlroy now says he did that after injuring the rib even though he played well at the Masters (T-7) and the Open Championship (T-4). He was never in serious contention in either, and top-10 finishes aren’t what his career is about.
That said, McIlroy hasn’t enjoyed the last three years very much. He hasn’t won a major since the 2014 PGA, and he was on a losing Ryder Cup team for the first time in 2016. He’s watched Jordan Spieth win three majors during that time and become golf’s latest golden boy, while his own world ranking has dropped from No. 1 to No. 11 going into Dubai.
The world ranking hardly bothers him at all. Three years without a major and the Ryder Cup loss rankle. He’s heard all the talk about the U.S. having solved all its Ryder Cup issues thanks to the committee formerly known as the Ryder Cup Task Force, and is well aware of how well the best young Americans are playing.
“I can’t wait for Paris,” he said last summer. “I really enjoyed Hazeltine. I enjoyed being the leader in the team room. I thought the spirit of the matches was fantastic. I went home afterward and watched every shot hit on Sunday. I sat there thinking, ‘My God, they made every putt.’ I knew Patrick [Reed] had made every putt to beat me, but I didn’t realize all of them had played so well. I remember thinking, They did to us what we’ve done to them in the past. They absolutely deserved to win.”
He smiled. “I’d like to think things will be different in Paris. Some of our rookies from Hazeltine [six played in all] will be more experienced. We’ll have the fans and the golf course will be set up to our advantage.”
Paris is a long way and a lot of golf away even though the topic is unavoidable in any Ryder Cup year.
McIlroy got a bit of a scare when he went to see a doctor recently and was told his rib was 100 percent but his heart might not be. A virus he caught 18 months ago in China apparently caused thickening in the left ventricle of his heart and left some scar tissue. It shouldn’t be serious, but he needs to be monitored, meaning McIlroy will get an echo-cardiogram twice a year and an MRI once a year to make certain the condition hasn’t worsened.
There was absolutely no sign in Abu Dhabi of any health problems—and remarkably little rust. McIlroy didn’t make a birdie on his opening nine on Thursday but made three coming in to shoot 69. Then he played like the McIlroy of old on Friday and Saturday to move into contention before Fleetwood’s back nine blitz—six birdies to shoot 65—allowed him to pass everyone and defend the title he won a year ago.
McIlroy is scheduled to play seven more times between now and the Masters—this week in Dubai; twice in California (Pebble Beach and Riviera); three times in Florida (Honda, Valspar and Bay Hill) and, finally, the World Match Play in Texas.
This week, 99 percent of the attention will be focused on Woods, which is fine with McIroy. At Valhalla in 2014, when McIlroy was coming off his win at the British Open, the spotlight was squarely on him, until Woods drove in on Wednesday afternoon three days after limping off the golf course in Akron.
“Loved it,” McIlroy said later. “It let me fly under the radar just a little bit.”
One week does not a comeback make. Not for Woods, or for McIlroy really. Even a win the next couple of months will not mean Rory is back—at least not to McIlroy.
But week 1 of Rory 2.0 was encouraging.