McIlroy still missing finishing touches
RORY McILROY was in no mood for words of consolation. He almost snorted at the suggestion that a tie for sixth place with Alvaro Quiros represented a decent defence of his Omega Dubai Desert Classic title.
The days of being satisfied with top-10 finishes are long gone. McIlroy was frustrated, even furious with himself for not, at the very least, hounding Spain's magnificent play-off winner Miguel Angel Jimenez (46) all the way to the podium.
In truth, the real Rory McIlroy didn't turn up on Saturday or Sunday at The Majlis Course, a track which fits his eye so nicely, he'd usually make birdies for fun.
The recurrence of a chronic lower back strain, which required him to wear heavy strapping and take anti-inflammatory tablets as he played, certainly took its toll.
After following McIlroy, step-by-step, for 14 of his final 36 holes, I recall less than a handful of shots that had the 'wow' factor we've come to expect from this remarkable young man.
When he stitched his mid-iron approach to the pin at 14 on Saturday, for example; his superlative 5-wood out of a fairway bunker at the par-five third on Sunday or the tee shot he arrowed brilliantly through a blustery crosswind into seven feet at the next.
Explaining the nature of his lower back injury, McIlroy says: "It's something that's been at me the last couple of years, which is why I went to physio Cornel (Driesson), who works with the South African rugby and hockey teams and does a couple of guys on tour.
"Everyone talks about this (double) movement in my swing, where the hips whip back and then forward. It puts a little strain on the lower back so I do all the exercises I can to make everything stronger around the joints. If I play two weeks in a row, it's fine; three weeks it starts to niggle and four weeks it starts to hurt. It's a matter of rest and managing my schedule so I don't play too many weeks in a row."
Yet McIlroy's failure "to get anything going" at the weekend in Dubai cannot be attributed solely to this sacroiliac problem (which, incidentally, he expects to clear up in time for tomorrow week's first-round clash with Kevin Na at the Accenture Match Play).
Nor can it be cited as the reason why McIlroy (20), arguably the most exciting young player in golf, has 'just' one victory to show for nearly 30 months on Tour and has not visited the winner's enclosure since last February in Dubai.
So what's wrong with Rory?
The short answer is 'not a lot'. After all, he yesterday displaced Padraig Harrington as Ireland's top world-ranked player, rising to a career-high seventh as the Dubliner slipped to 10th after missing the cut in his 2010 pipe-opener, the Northern Trust in Los Angeles.
McIlroy's meteoric rise up the world ladder has been fuelled by his remarkable consistency over the past year. Since winning in Dubai 12 months ago, he's missed the cut just once in 27 appearances, registering 13 top-10 finishes, 10 of which were top-fives.
One of only a dozen players to make the weekend at all four Majors in 2009, McIlroy was impressive on his debut at The Masters (tied 20th), the US Open (tied 10th) and the US PGA (tied 3rd).
Off the course, he has it all. McIlroy is intelligent, quick-witted, enjoys the support of a loving family, has a steady girlfriend and, already, is fabulously wealthy, having earned just shy of €6m in prize money and nearly as much again from sponsorship and endorsements.
He owns a palatial new home on 13-plus acres outside the Co Down village of Moneyreagh. A Lamborghini, an Audi RS and the latest Audi 4x4 gleam in the garage, while work is about to begin on installing a top-class practice facility with a 250-yard driving range and three par-3 holes on the property.
So high has McIlroy's stock soared that his agent Chubby Chandler last weekend had to deny UK media speculation that Nike were about to sign him up on a $40m deal to replace Tiger Woods as their front man.
"It cannot happen," insisted Chandler, revealing the Holywood star is contracted to lead-sponsor Jumeirah and Titleist, until the end of 2012.
Yet for all his talent and the trappings of stardom, McIlroy is still learning his trade and frustrating days like last Sunday in Dubai further advances his education.
The lesson he must take is obvious, if difficult to put into practice -- missed opportunities early-on in the final round must be set aside and forgotten.
Sadly, the two birdie chances which went-a-begging on the third and fourth holes on Sunday, as McIlroy desperately sought momentum in his pursuit of the leaders, undermined his confidence on greens which were crusty, running faster and difficult to read. And the only real chink in McIlroy's armour is his putting. He's a good putter -- bad ones don't get into the world's top-10 -- but his confidence on the greens can be fragile under pressure.
His back injury prevented him from playing with the usual fluency off the tee and on the fairway last weekend but, typically of golf, the gasket only blew at its weakest point, on the greens, where McIlroy took 64 putts over the final 36 holes, including 33 on Sunday.
He's working on a solution with Dr Paul Hurrion, Harrington's putting guru, and as McIlroy gradually develops trust in his technique, it will eventually stand up even to the strictest scrutiny.
Ian Poulter suggested after playing with McIlroy in Abu Dhabi that the Ulsterman will be virtually unbeatable when he "learns how to finish off (tournaments)".
In that respect, Japan's Ryo Ishikawa has the upper hand over McIlroy after four victories on his native Tour in 2009 brought his tally of Tour wins in his homeland to seven at the tender age of 18.
World No 34 Ishikawa has enjoyed a couple of significant advantages over the Irishman. He's played much of his golf as a professional in familiar surroundings as a member of the Japan Tour, where the opposition is not nearly as strong as that which McIlroy encounters on a weekly basis in Europe.
For example, Ishikawa was the only player from the world's top-50 in the field when he won October's Coca-Cola Tokai Classic. That same weekend, McIlroy was one of 15 members of the world's elite in action at the Dunhill Links, where he tied second behind Simon Dyson, again after failing to turn the screw fully on his opponent on Sunday.
Yet Ishikawa is a solid putter and the reassurance he took from those wins in his homeland have stood to him in some tight-pressure situations, not least at last September's President's Cup, where he crowned a remarkably confident performance by beating PGA Tour stalwart Kenny Perry in the singles.
Inevitably, it's going to take time and, above all, patience for McIlroy to become as practised as Ishikawa in the art of winning and, interestingly, he now thinks a sports psychologist might help.
"I think I'll probably go down that road in the next few weeks," he said. "You usually know what a psychologist is going to say but they tell you so many times, it's embedded into your brain, so you don't have to think about it. I've read all of (Dr Bob) Rotella's books, and it does help. I'm not saying I'll go to him but I'll look into it."
When the young Ulsterman eventually acquires that winning habit, even Tiger Woods will have to watch his back.