‘Rory McIlroy’s Dubai Desert Classic win sees Northern Irishman start season on a high’

  • By Iain Carter
  • BBC golf correspondent

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Rory McIlroy celebrated his record fourth Dubai Desert Classic win with his parents Rosie and Gerry

Rory McIlroy’s victory at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic is by no means an indicator that he will end his agonising wait for a Masters Green Jacket.

We only have to go back to last year to recall that his epic triumph over Patrick Reed on the Majlis Course at the Emirates Club did not translate into completion of the career Grand Slam.

But already the world number two has emphatically proven that he has picked up smoothly from where he left off from his Ryder Cup and Race to Dubai winning season of 2023.

There has been no drop off despite a sizeable break. Last Sunday’s one shot triumph over Adrian Meronk came in only his third tournament since completing his biggest personal Ryder Cup contribution (four out of five points) in the autumn.

Those events included turning up at the DP World Tour Championship in November to pick up an already secured fifth Race to Dubai title and then came a runner-up finish at the Dubai Invitational the week before this Desert Classic victory.

His time off was not wasted and the triumph he is currently savouring was an embodiment of perhaps his biggest learning from last season, which came in the aftermath of a Masters missed cut.

“I think last year at Augusta, I learnt a lot about myself,” McIlroy said after his well managed closing 70 brought victory in a tournament where he had trailed by 10 shots at the halfway stage.

“I’ve told this story numerous times now about the first green on Friday (at the Masters), and Brooks (Koepka) was on the eighth green and I saw the big leaderboard, and I was already 10 behind at that point.

“I was 10 behind after two days this week and ended up winning the golf tournament. That’s massive. I feel like I’ve taken that learning already and put it into practise a little bit.”

McIlroy spoke last week about how he takes pride in still wanting to compete and enjoy the process of constantly trying to improve.

It will be a decade without a major title if he does not add one of the biggies this year to the four he already has to his name.

And as he celebrated this record fourth Desert Classic win, he revealed his ambitions remain undimmed from those that he harboured as a child. “I wanted to do what Tiger Woods did,” he stated.

“I’ll probably not have the career that he’s had, but I still look at the trophies that I’ve won and my name is on those same trophies that his is on, as well.

“I don’t know a better way of quantifying success in the game as putting your name on the trophies that the people before you have put their names on.

“Whether it be this trophy or major championship trophies or whatever it is. I sat up here on Wednesday and talked about global golf and something like the Australian Open.

“I’m looking at the Stonehaven Cup, and my name is on there with Peter Thomson and all the legends of the game. I think it’s a very cool thing.”

This illustrates McIlroy’s drive to make the biggest possible mark on golfing history, which is why he is so desperate to win the Masters, his last major before turning 35 on 4 May.

“I just think that the generation span is so long in golf that, you know, I’ve played in the US Open with Tom Watson but I’ve also played in a US Open with Rasmus Hojgaard, who is 52 years younger than Tom Watson.”

McIlroy spent his off season working on his swing with lifetime coach Michael Bannon. He put in time on his putting with Brad Faxon, the former US Ryder Cup player, who sent over telling observations on his green work during the Dubai tournament.

The Northern Irish star has also spoken at length to mind coach Bob Rotella and worked with his fitness advisor in the gym to ready himself for what will be a busy first part of the year.

McIlroy plans to add extra events in his bid to find optimum form for Augusta, where since 2015 he has been striving for the win that would put him alongside Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen as the only male players to have a complete set of major titles.

No one knows better than McIlroy the fickle nature of this capricious game which offers no guarantees. Tougher fields await and the talent pool grows ever deeper.

Just look at what Nick Dunlap, 20, achieved at the American Express last Sunday, becoming the first amateur to win on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson in 1991. Another star is born.

McIlroy was one of those wunderkinds in his own precocious youth. Nowadays, despite nearly two decades of sustained excellence at tour level, there are observers who brand him an underachiever, lacking in bottle.

But they miss the crucial point that, despite major misses, he continues to amass a supreme body of work in an outstanding career.

This Middle East win took plenty of quality and nerve. His Saturday 63 was a thrilling charge and beat the best of the rest by four shots on a tricky third day.

Then on Sunday, McIlroy kept his foot on the gas in a bogey free three-under-par outward half which enabled him to manage a scrappy closing stretch and hold Meronk and third round leader Cameron Young at bay.

He would have loved such composure at last year’s US Open, which slipped from his grasp at the Los Angeles Country Club and likewise at St Andrews the previous year when he could not keep pace with Cam Smith’s triumphant charge.

And he most certainly would have desired such collectedness when he was spooked by Koepka’s commanding early lead at Augusta last year.

These sort of setbacks bring baggage that needs banishing to some long forgotten cupboard. One that is proving very hard to locate.

Perhaps this will be the year he finds it, perhaps not. But already in 2023 he has a useful foundation thanks to this win.

Only time will truly tell whether he can live his ultimate Masters dream and it is little surprise he is not getting carried away even though he is now nearing 40 professional titles – a highly impressive haul by most standards.

He would, surely, trade several for the one he most craves. But McIlroy’s early year schedule is now fully mapped and all roads lead to Augusta.

“I’ve still got some big events to come,” McIlroy said. “But, I think from now until that week in April at least a part of my mind is going to be towards getting myself absolutely ready for there.”

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