Sport Golf

Friday 20 April 2018

'I don't fear any of them. Any one of them' - Rory McIlroy says he will reclaim number one spot

Holywood star gunning for No 1 as he deals with side effects of China viral infection

Rory McIlroy suffered a bad viral infection in China 18 months ago which has led to an irregularity in his heart. ‘I just need to stay on top of it,’ he says. Photo: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy suffered a bad viral infection in China 18 months ago which has led to an irregularity in his heart. ‘I just need to stay on top of it,’ he says. Photo: Getty Images

James Corrigan

Even a heart scare will not derail Rory McIlroy from his 2018 objective. He has undergone the tests, "absolutely loved the down time" and has come out of this period of self-examination by declaring his mission to return to world No 1 by the end of the year.

After a near four-month break - the longest of his career - McIlroy is plainly itching to go and will resume in the Abu Dhabi Championship on Thursday.

Sitting down in a coffee bar yesterday beneath the tower of his Dubai residence, the 28-year-old projected the air of an athlete who had recovered his spark - as well his mojo.

Except, the health report he delivered was unexpected after the injured rib which plagued his winless season of 2017.

"The rib's fine, no problems whatsoever - I had an MRI scan on my thoracic spine and all was OK," McIlroy said, after returning from yet another sun-lit practice session. "But I've got a bit of an irregularity with my heart that I have to keep on top of.

"I have a flat T-wave and I'll have to get an echo [cardiogram] on my heart every six months and an MRI scan every year.

"I suffered a really bad viral infection in China 18 months ago and they told me that's the reason that I have this thickening of my left ventricle and there's a bit of scar tissue. For now, I just need to stay on top of it and have to stay fit. Hey, I was planning on doing that anyway."

Unflustered One of McIlroy's many charms is that he is always unflustered. It is his blessed state of mind. Following the alarming health bulletin, he sat back in his seat and sipped on his cappuccino and barely winced when his world ranking was put to him. He may be 11th - the one and only time this decade that he has been ranked outside the top 10 at the start of a year - but that does not rankle.

"I don't judge it like that," McIlroy said. "I don't care about the world rankings. I think about number of wins, the ability of the players against me, the number of Majors the others have. I don't feel I need to compare myself to anyone else, because I know what I can do. I'm not hung up on it.

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"I still feel that on my day, if I'm on my roll, and especially if I'm playing with them... I just crave to be in that position again.

"That hasn't always been the case with me. The first three years with my career I struggled when it came to that head-to-head stuff down the stretch, with the big guys, but now I actually think it's when I am at my best.

"I played my best last year when I played the last round of the British Masters and actually had a sniff. Once I give myself a shout, I fancy it now.

"Maybe before, I had to win from the front. I just don't feel that now. I don't fear any of them. Any one of them. I've beaten them before. I've seen what I have done in practice before, that I know I'm on track to where I want to be.

"It's nice to be world No 1, sure, and I will get back there, but it's all about winning tournaments. And I will give myself the best chances this season."

The mission is highlighted on the back of a plane ticket. Except it would be, if he had continued that wonderful tradition which stretched back to when he was a dreaming lad in economy penning his goals on the reverse of 36C. He says there is a leather-bound diary now in which his goals are recorded and when McIlroy makes his season debut at the Abu Dhabi Championship the demands will still be penned in ink.

And he will be delighted to have that appetite back following what he called "the dreary end to 2017". "To be honest, I just went through the motions for the last few months last year," McIlroy said.

"That's not me. But it was a product of the circumstances. I knew within myself that I couldn't compete at the end of last season because I hadn't done the work beforehand, and that's because I hadn't been fit enough and if you can't practise, you can't compete. It's the way the year went after suffering the rib injury in the first tournament of the year. I had a few top 10s, seventh at Augusta and then I took a month off and had a honeymoon, and I wouldn't change it for the world.

"And then I came back and my rib flared up again and I shouldn't have played the US Open.

"I got injured at the Players and should have said, 'Yeah, I'll miss a Major', because I was only there to get by and you can't win a Major by 'getting by'.

"The season just went on, had a bit of chance at the Open, but, you know, I really needed these three-and-a-half months of just me and team and family. Mentally more than physically probably.

"It's been 10 years that I've been a pro and to me that's incredible. In January 2008, I was right here in Dubai, getting ready for my first full season on the European Tour, playing Abu Dhabi the next week, as I am now, and that's taken its toll. I needed the reset that I've just had. Let's just say that between now and when I signed off last year, I feel way more optimistic, focused, motivated, purposeful. I know exactly what I can do."

However seismic the expectations are with McIlroy - and just the start of it remains beating Nick Faldo's European record of six Majors and challenging Gary Player's non-American mark of nine - the man himself knows what he has to conquer. "I want to keep going on that journey - resuming it even," McIlroy said. "I won four Majors from 2011 to 2014 and everyone was saying, 'That's Tiger pace'. And I realise everyone knows I haven't won one in the last three years and that is a worry, yeah. I need to get back on that track and this year my goals are to add to my Major tally and get back to world No 1, winning more times than anyone else. It's simple, there are no excuses with my game or my private life. I've had the best time of my life in the last few months."

It began with a road trip through Italy with his wife, Erica - in a wedding present of a 1950 Mercedes SL - and that euphoria was only punctured by repeated gym sessions between the respective festive visits to in-laws' homes in Rochester and Belfast.

And then the McIlroys bought Ernie Els's home just along the freeway from their own residence in West Palm Beach.

Erica remains there while the husband does his thing. "We are renovating but not quite rebuilding - it'll be amazing when we're done," McIlroy said. You could only feel that sums up his career.

© Daily Telegraph, London

Telegraph.co.uk

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