Rory McIlroy won a record-breaking fourth Hero Dubai Desert Classic last month as he successfully defended his title in front of a huge crowd Emirates Golf Club. Now, the 34-year-old has his eyes on bigger things as he looks to end a 10-year wait without a Major trophy.
The Middle East has been a happy hunting ground for McIlroy throughout his entire career, with six of his 17 DP World Tour victories coming in the United Arab Emirates. He’s called Dubai home in the past, while the city was also the place he clinched his first professional trophy. He’s from Northern Ireland and now lives in the States, but desert golf has had a profound impact on his golfing story.
“The arc of my career and Dubai in general have sort of tracked each other pretty consistently along the way,” said McIlroy in the aftermath of his victory at Emirates Golf Club. “I remember my first Desert Classic in ’06 as an amateur, staying what seemed like out in the desert at this point, and it’s probably like only 10 minutes away now, it’s so built up.
“But just to think like 18 years ago, and what it meant to come here and play in this event, having won it four times, and all the great experiences that I’ve had in Dubai and the friends that I’ve met and everything sort of along the way, it’s always been a place where I come back to and reminisce about my career because I really feel like it’s where everything started.
“The first Desert Classic, I took a media credential and I walked inside the ropes to follow Tiger and Ernie and Thomas Björn, I think, and then just to think about even the arc of that: Thomas Björn is my Ryder Cup Captain; I ended up buying Ernie Els’ house; I’ve become really good friends with Tiger Woods. It’s just amazing to think back on the last 18 years and sort of where I find myself.”
And where he finds himself is at the summit of the game for yet another year. While a Major trophy has alluded him since 2014, the consistency he’s shown over an extended period has been remarkable. Eight wins and 31 other top-10 finishes since 2021 alone. It would have been easy for the seven-time Ryder Cupper to relax and let his level drop at some point.
“I think I have enough people around me to keep me accountable,” he added. “I think that’s really, really important. Whether that’s Michael Bannon coming out and us working on some stuff; whether that’s like the odd text from Harry during the course of an off-week; doing some work with Brad Faxon at home in Florida, doing work with my trainer, Roe; having conversations with Bob Rotella.
“I think I have enough of a great team around me and enough people around me to keep me accountable. I feel like if I’m not trying my best, I’m letting them down, as well. If they are putting a hundred percent of their effort into it, then I feel like I should at least give them the respect to put a hundred percent of my effort in as well.”
Green Jacket Hopes
This April will see McIlroy tee it up at Augusta National for the 16th time in his career. Last year he missed the cut despite also winning the Desert Classic earlier in the season, which once again provides proof of how unpredictable this game can be. But 2023 delivered lessons to Rory which he will be hoping to use to his advantage this time around.
“Augusta is still a long way away in golfing terms,” continued the four-time Major champion. “A lot can change, but it’s always nice to get a win. It’s always nice to feel like you’re playing well going into it. I’ve always said that I’ll take execution over preparation every single time because you just you have to execute the golf shots, especially there.
“I think last year at Augusta, I learnt a lot about myself. I’ve told this story numerous times now about the first green on Friday, and Brooks 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 a massive. I feel like I’ve taken that learning already and put it into practise a little bit already.
“I’ve still got some big events to come but you know, I think from now until that first or second week in April, you know, at least a part of my mind is going to be towards getting myself absolutely ready for there.”
So much hinges on the Masters for McIlroy because it remains the missing piece to the puzzle in his quest to complete the career Grand Slam. Every Major matters, but the Masters particularly so. With the world number two now into his mid 30s, the doubts in his own mind must grow with every passing year that he fails to collect the Green Jacket.
But will he get it done this time? While he gets prepared for another trip down Magnolia Lane to answer that question, us fans head down Déjà vu Alley as we discuss that same subject again. His form is erratic at the venue, with results ranging from missed cuts to second place finishes, but that will mean little come Thursday morning.
One thing which may work in Rory’s favour this year is the presence of Tiger Woods at Augusta. If the American is on track fitness wise, he should be set to tee it up at the year’s first Major as he continues his latest comeback. The 48-year-old is moving better, and his likely appearance will draw a huge crowd. That should take some of the pressure and attention off the Northern Irishman himself.
“I grew up, and my hero was Tiger Woods,” said McIlroy. “I wanted to do what Tiger did. 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 are on, as well, which is… I mean, 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.
“I think just being able to go from one generation to the next, I don’t know if there’s any other sport that you can do it as much as, maybe in tennis a little bit. But I just think that the generation span is so long in golf that. I’ve played in the U.S. Open with Tom Watson but I’ve also played in a U.S. Open with Rasmus Højgaard, who is 60 years younger than Tom Watson.
“I think just the generations and length of time that you can be a pro and you can have success in golf, I think it’s amazing to think about the journey and to think about the players that you’ve played with. You know, at the start of my career, and then the players that I’m playing with now, and just the length of time that all of those careers have spanned.”
As McIlroy plans to embark on that annual trip to Augusta, the whispers of his latest Dubai victory will no doubt become a steadfast companion. A decade-long quest for Major glory finds its crescendo, with Augusta’s hallowed grounds now the stage for the finale again, where echoes of triumph may finally break the silence of anticipation. This year already feels different, and he’ll be hoping it is.