Rory set for desert storm
Everything in place for McIlroy to hit top form on old stomping ground
JUST eight years have passed since Rory McIlroy, then only 16, borrowed a photographer's camera and impishly snuck inside the ropes for a close-up view of his idol Tiger Woods in action at the 2006 Dubai Desert Classic.
Early this morning McIlroy – already a two-time Major champion at 24, master of his own affairs after last year's contentious break-up with management company Horizon, and recently engaged to Danish tennis ace Caroline Wozniacki – was very much 'the man' as he shook hands with Tiger on the 10th tee at the Majlis Course.
While lawsuits have been filed by both sides in the acrimonious dispute between the golfer and his former agents yet, McIlroy could hardly appear more content with life on and off the course.
"Getting engaged to Caroline has been fantastic," the Holywood native enthused earlier this week. His relationship with golf appears just as blissful once again after a long rocky stretch in 2013, when his faith, hope and patience were stretched to breaking point.
Yet dark days, like McIlroy's mid-round walk-off on Friday at the Honda Classic, his club-mangling frustration on Sunday at the US Open, or his head-spinning performance in the first two rounds of July's Open at Muirfield, are history.
His frustration salved by December's victory at the Australian Open in Sydney and any remaining self-doubt dispelled by a splendid ball-striking performance as he tied second in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago, McIlroy is very, very close to his imperious best.
There are few better places than the Majlis Course here at the Emirates Club for McIlroy to complete his redemption. By all accounts, he's been striping the ball this week on a layout which might have been hand-crafted to fit his game.
McIlroy has put down several career milestones in Dubai. He missed the cut but enjoyed that first close, on-course encounter with Tiger here in 2006, made the weekend for the first time in a European Tour event the following year, then clinched his maiden victory as a professional in 2009.
Inevitably, McIlroy was asked yesterday what's changed most for him, "other than the hair", in the five years since that win.
"I guess my physique, a little bit," he replied. "I'm more experienced, more sure of myself, more confident. Obviously a lot of things have changed in five years but, in essence, I'm still the same person that was sitting here on that Sunday night with the big coffee pot (the distinctive Desert Classic trophy) next to me."
Yet the past 18 months have seen a seismic shift in his life and career.
Like McIlroy's second record-breaking Major victory at the 2012 US PGA, getting back to world No 1, if temporarily, topping the money-list both in the US and Europe that year, that life-altering $20m-per-annum deal with Nike, setting up his own management company and his engagement.
Pointedly, McIlroy was in the Alpine ski resort of Courchevel with Wozniacki last year when, by his own admission, he needed to be bedding in his new Nike equipment and copper-fastening his confidence in competition in Dubai.
Twelve months on, Tiger has arrived in the Arabian Desert with similar clouds of doubt swirling about his game after his first tournament of 2014 was cut short by last Saturday's abysmal 79 in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
That Woods had won eight tournaments on the South Course at Torrey Pines, including the most recent of his 14 Major titles, the 2008 US Open, made his third-round demise all the more shocking.
"My game certainly was nowhere near as sharp as I'd have liked. I was just a fraction off but on a golf course set up that hard, it bit me pretty hard," Tiger said yesterday.
"I needed to make a few slight adjustments and I did that," he added. "Unfortunately, I had Sunday off so I had a chance to go home and hit a few shots. Then I came out here and improved every day – Tuesday was better than Monday, Wednesday was better than Tuesday. Hopefully tomorrow will be even better."
It was also fascinating to hear Tiger outline that he still yearns to play Pine Valley outside Philadelphia, which some say supersedes Augusta National as America's most exclusive course.
As for this weeked's action, adding further spice to the Silver Jubilee celebrations at the Desert Classic is the stunning $2.5m jackpot (which is the equivalent of the entire tournament purse) that is being offered to the first player who aces the par-four 17th on Saturday or Sunday.
The hole will be shortened from 359 yards to 325 at the weekend and McIlroy underlined his confidence in his Covert driver by saying he'll certainly have a pop, even if he's leading on Sunday afternoon.
"It shouldn't be a problem to get there. If you're confident with your driver, why not," he said. "Sure if they move the tee up and it's only going to play 295 or 300, it's a 3-wood!"
THE DUBAI DESERT CLASSIC,
LIVE, SKY SPORTS 4, 6.0AM & 10.30AM
THE PHOENIX OPEN,
LIVE, SKY SPORTS 4, 8.0AM