World No. 1 Rory McIlroy has returned to the scene of the, well, not crime, but calamity of 2022 with a score to settle.
The Northern Irishman was in contention to claim his third Dubai Desert Classic crown at Emirates Golf Club last year, only to send his approach on the last hole into the water on Sunday, handing the title to Viktor Hovland, after the Norwegian overcame Richard Bland in a playoff.
Now McIlroy is back to right that wrong and — hopefully — become the second man to win this coveted trophy for a third time after Ernie Els.
“It’s really nice to be back,” he said ahead of Thursday’s opening round, when he will go out with Tommy Fleetwood and Ryan Fox. “You know, I’ve had a lot of great memories here and success over the years at the Emirates but feel like I have a little bit of unfinished business with how the tournament ended for me last year here. Wasn’t quite the way I wanted to finish it off.”
While McIlroy missed out in Dubai, it was the start of a stellar 2022 that saw him claim the FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour as well as the DP World Tour season-long Rankings race before a welcome break at the end of the year.
“I went on from that week and played really well and had a great year,” he said. “But it’s been nice to try to take a little bit of time away, and try to distance myself from the game of golf for at least a month or two, and recharge and reset. Now I will start 2023 with renewed optimism and a full tank, ready to go.
“I played with Tiger, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth at the start of December
in ‘The Match’, then I put the clubs away for a few weeks after that. I was pretty mentally and physically drained after the year. So I didn’t pick the clubs up again until the new year.”
And with the new year comes the new challenge back in Dubai.
“I’ve been obviously practising at home and practising well but it’s always first tournament of the year, getting back on to the golf course,” McIlroy said. “I am just trying to get comfortable again with shots on the course and visuals and all that sort of stuff. I’m sure it will be a little bit of rust to start the week but hopefully I can shake that off. I’ve got a great record here, so I have great confidence in that.”
After that wet shot to finish the Dubai Desert Classic last time out, McIlroy insists he would attempt the same shot, should it arise this week.
“It wasn’t a bad decision,” he said. “It was just a bad swing. It was a bit of a hanging lie. The group in front of us were taking their time on the 18th green, and I had quite a bit of a wait, but that’s not an excuse. It was just a bad swing at the wrong time.
“I certainly would make the decision again. There’s so much room behind that green. There’s a backboard. Yeah, if those hospitality units were out-of-bounds posts, maybe I’d think about it differently or have a different decision to make. But you can literally walk it into the hospitality and
take a drop and try to make your four
that way. I hit a bad shot and mis-struck it. Obviously, the miss was long and I missed it short.”
Regardless of a near miss, McIlroy has one of the best records in Dubai and is ready to go again in pursuit of another crown.
“I first played this tournament in 2006. So I’ve been coming here for a long time, 17 years. I’ve got a level of comfort here. I like starting my year here. I have a lot of friends. I called this place home for four years.
“I get great support here with the crowds that come out, and just you start playing competitively around a golf course you have known for such a long time. It just feels automatic, where you hit your tee shots, where you remember certain things about certain shots and different putts and all those things play into it. Yeah, just a real level of comfort.”
If McIlroy goes away with another Coffee Pot trophy in the bag, this home from home will be all the more comfortable.