New year, same Rory McIlroy, at least when it comes to the considered responses of the articulate world number six during his pre-tournament press-conferences. Inside the ropes, McIlroy supporters will hope to see an altogether different animal to the one that failed to win in 2020, and the one who hasn’t tasted Major success since 2014.
This week McIlroy tees off his season back on the European Tour but for all his great play in the desert over the years, it may surprise some that the four-time Major winner has never won an Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. His first professional win arrived up the road at just 19-years of age at the Dubai Desert Classic but in his efforts to repeat the feat in Abu Dhabi, it’s been a case of close but no cigar for the revitalised looking McIlroy.
“It would be a great way to start the year,” McIlroy said of picking up an elusive first win at Abu Dhabi Golf Club ahead of Thursday’s opening round.
“I saw something the other day – of the thirteen times I’ve played a first tournament of a season in my pro career, I’ve had eleven Top 5s. The fact that there is no win in there is a little surprising I guess. I come out at the start of the year and I don’t think you’re as fully sharp as you would want to be but at least the optimism is there and the enthusiasm is there. You don’t have any scar tissue built up from previous tournaments that year. I feel like every year is a fresh start and I like that feeling.”
McIlroy will likely welcome such renewed optimism this year more than most. Like so many of us facing into 2021 from our lockdown stations, the turn of the year represented a hopeful new beginning, and more importantly, an escape from a year most people would wish to forget. Sure, it might seem like more of the same for many of us but in McIlroy’s case, an overdue visit to the winner’s enclosure would provide respite, not least from those questioning his motivation and desire to return to the very peak of his mercurial powers in recent times.
“Yeah, I think so,” McIlroy said of a growing impatience to win again. “China back in November 2019 does feel like a long time ago; the world was a much different place back then than it is now.
“Yeah, look, I had a great start last year. Didn’t really play that great coming back out of lockdown, but then felt like I was starting to play a lot better as the season came to an end. Saw some promising signs, on the West Coast in L.A. (T17) and Vegas (T21) and had a decent Masters (T5). Played really well the last three rounds there. So yeah, I mean, I’m trying not to be impatient. I try to stay as patient as possible, but what I will say is that last win does feel like quite a long time ago at this point.”
So how does McIlroy intend to ensure this year is a winning one? A known goal-setter on Tour, rather than list a bunch of pie in the sky desires ahead of a bumper season that includes a Ryder Cup and an Olympics, the 31-year old has written down a list of micro goals instead, believing that by improving his percentages and trusting the process, small wins should soon contribute to a much brighter bigger picture.
“There was a couple of stats that stood out to me last year that I needed to be a little bit better at,” he explained. “One of the things was approach play out of the rough, which is sort of random, but I hit 60 percent of fairways, so that means 40 percent of the time I’m hitting out of the rough, which is quite a lot, and my performance out of the rough last year was way down than what it was the previous year (ranked 250th in 2020).
“My approaches off the fairway were actually pretty similar, and then there was a couple different things like putting between four and eight feet wasn’t quite as good as it was the previous year. In terms of goals, I want to get those better. Obviously if I get those better, my game will become better. If I practice the right way and I get those right, then it will sort of be a knock-on effect and help everything else.”
Rory McIlroy makes his European Tour return in the company of Lee Westwood and Justin Thomas at 3.30am on Thursday, Irish time.
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