Rory McIlroy will carry powerful feelings of a favoured place into the pursuit of Henrik Stenson and Rafa Cabrera-Bello for the DP World Tour Championship on the Earth Course in Dubai this morning. Rocked by successive double-bogeys on his homeward journey, the 70 he managed to squeeze out of yesterday's third round left him four strokes behind the joint leaders in fourth place.
In the wake of a missed cut in the Irish Open last June, McIlroy pledged to become "the best at what I do." His response was two Major championships on either side of the Bridgestone Invitational to effectively secure the Road to Dubai title. Now he is challenging against the odds to complete the big end-of-season double.
After a birdie on the 10th had given him a share of the lead, a poor pitch and three putts did the damage at the long 12th, followed by a bad swing and two hacks from rough on the short 13th. Still, displaying remarkable composure, he claimed to have been no more than "a little frustrated" through it all.
In this context, it would have helped that since a Dubai debut in 2009, he has never been over par in the emirate in 23 competitive rounds, which comprise six 66s, five 67s, two 68s, two 69s, two 70s, five 71s and one 72. "I have to try and get off to a fast start like I did on Thursday (66) and put some pressure on and see what happens," he said with typical optimism. "I can't afford to stay patient. I need birdies from the off."
A significant, added problem, however, is that Stenson also loves a course where he was victorious last year with a sizzling aggregate of 25-under.
Meanwhile, a bogey on the treacherous, long 18th in a level-par 72 left Shane Lowry borderline for the 13th-place finish he needs today to get into the world's top-50. The Offaly man was generally solid after Friday's spectacle of the first ace of his tournament career. Graeme McDowell also carded 72 to remain on two under par for the tournament in 41st place.
"There is golf," Bobby Jones once observed, "and there is tournament golf." Irish players were experiencing the latter in its more extreme forms last week, at opposite ends of the European spectrum. For some, it meant a battle for actual job survival at the Qualifying School at PGA Catalunya, where Peter Lawrie, undergoing the ordeal for the first time in 13 years, performed admirably only to fail by one stroke in 108 holes.
Those in Dubai were clearly a lot more fortunate, though both groups have been severely tested competitively, which is something that golfers at all levels can understand. Jack Nicklaus, arguably the greatest competitor in the history of the game, clearly knew about such matters.
"There are certain competitive levels you can achieve, whether it's the club championship or the district championship. When you get to that level you should be able to concentrate and control your emotions so that you can win."
He went on: "Sure, you're nervous, but that's the difference between being able to win and not being able to win. And that's the fun of it, to put yourself into the position of being nervous, being excited. I never looked at it as pressure. I looked at is as fun and excitement. That's why you're doing it."
Performances by Ireland's Dubai challengers have been quite revealing over the last four months, essentially since The Open at Hoylake. During that period, McDowell has moved from 17th to 15th in the world rankings and edged up from 12th to 11th on the Road to Dubai, while Lowry has improved from 58th to 52nd in the rankings. Hoey is an exception, having slipped from a world ranking of 169th to 190th, and from 36th to 56th at European level.
Following on from rounds of 73 and 78, yesterday's 70 reflected Hoey's battle for consistency, even if significant improvement has been achieved in this, his sixth year on tour. "I've made 19 cuts [from 30 events], which is the most I've ever made," he said last week. "So things are obviously improving." This, despite having to retire during the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa last December because of a heavy cold and from the second round of The Open last July with a foot injury. And the stomach bug which affected him during the Turkish Airlines Open last weekend still hadn't quite cleared in yesterday's fine, four-birdie effort.
Hoey is a fascinating player who manages to spend much of his time on tour under the radar, despite five tournament victories - one more than Paul McGinley. "It's good not having to speak to you guys," he mocked, with a mischievous smile. "No media attention. Make £300,000 a year and no stress."
Then the player who does an excellent take-off of Pádraig Harrington went on: "There's the image I have of being really quiet, though I'm not as quiet as people think. If you don't have a big personality, you're not going to get much media attention. You're better off having a lesser game with a big personality.
"But I've been unlucky with illness. I seem to get a lot of colds. One of the hazards of flying is lots of bugs in aircraft. Maybe there's a deficiency in my immune system."
Renowned for impressive driving of the ball during a sparkling amateur career, he has developed a damaging hook in the professional ranks. Yet, typically self-effacing, he refuses to take setbacks too seriously. Like his explanation for having played in only three Majors as a professional, without completing 72 holes. "My game hasn't been good enough; too wild off the tee," he said. "I'm struggling with a fade shot, big time, but at least I'm aware of it. You can't get the ball around the course in a Major unless you're hitting fairways.
"My wild shots may be a bit mental but technically, I do tend to get the club in behind myself a bit. Though I know I'm talented, it's not really a matter of how talented you are, it's about how you can repeat. Guys like (Lee) Westwood who go out there and just repeat and repeat and repeat . . . If you're inconsistent, four rounds of golf can seem like forever."
From a low of 51.18 per cent of fairways in 2011, his driving accuracy has improved to a current 60.5 per cent, largely as a consequence of working this year with two coaches, fellow Ulsterman Johnny Foster and Dubai-based Justin Parsons. "You know what they say about being able to talk to a fade but a hook won't listen: well, I'm beginning to straighten up off the tee," he said.
Which he's hoping will culminate in a less fretful 2015.
Sunday Indo Sport