McIlroy returns to the place it all began chasing Dubai Desert hat-trick

John Craven
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Rory McIlroy (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

After reportedly surviving a tee throwing incident at the hands of the ever-popular, Patrick Reed, Rory McIlroy’s attention shifts to a seasonal reappearance at a familiar stomping ground this week in Dubai.

Opting to use his one free pass and skip the first PGA Tour designated event at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, McIlroy headlines a DP World Tour field for the first time this year, commanding worthy favouritism as he takes a trip down memory lane.

McIlroy was a curly-haired 16-year old amateur when he first set tongues wagging deep in the desert, showing plenty of promise despite missing the halfway cut by a single stroke at a tournament won by his now good friend, Tiger Woods.

Back then McIlroy pitched up with a Titleist cap and gaudy white belt but boy could he play, posting nine birdies and an eagle in an even par two-day return. Although he didn’t manage to play his way into the weekend, McIlroy hung around for all four days, even getting his hands on a media credential affording him inside the ropes access to his golfing idol, Woods.

“I had a better view than most, being able to get inside the ropes and have a media credential,” McIlroy recalled.

“Tiger hit a five-iron out of the right rough on 10 and landed on the green and stopped it on the green – and to this day it was one of the best golf shots I’ve ever seen. Just sticks out in my mind and I was right there for it.”

Many a spectator has since clambered for position outside the ropes to witness a similar spectacle delivered by McIlroy in the intervening years.

Now twice a Dubai Desert Classic winner in 2009 and 2015, the four-time Major champion tees up Thursday looking to join Ernie Els in the hat-trick club. Rather surprisingly, he’s also looking to land an elusive first Rolex Series title.

The bookmakers believe McIlroy will set that record straight this week with the Holywood star’s course form impossible to ignore. In 2009, the then 19-year old captured his first of now 14 European Tour titles, making him the tournament’s youngest winner.

From 2010 to 2014, as he racked up four major wins that he’s somehow yet to add to, McIlroy managed four top-10s in Dubai but had to wait until 2015 to claim his second desert title. Route 66 in the third round ensured safe passage to the winner’s circle; McIlroy completing a three-shot victory at an event he boasted a cumulative score to par of 118-under from 2010 to 2018.

In 2022, he returned after a four year absence to stake his hat-trick claim once more but holding a share of the lead standing on the 72nd tee, he went for glory with his approach to the par-5, dunking his fairway wood into the water for a podium finish that undoubtedly hurt.

“I had 255 front, I could have got 5-wood there, I could have stepped on a 3-iron and got there if I wanted to. I tried to hit a 3-wood and hold it back up against the wind from a hanging lie and I just caught it off the heel and it flared up in the wind.

“Obviously the end of that tournament in Dubai was disappointing, made a bad swing at a bad time, but I did a lot of really good things in there that I can’t forget about,” McIlroy reflected prior to the Genesis.

And true to his word, he didn’t linger on the negatives, instead completing a FedEx Cup/Race to Dubai double, catapulting him back to world number one and within a whisker of ending his Major drought to Cam Smith at The Open.

Bigger tests lie in wait in 2023 of course but a good start is half the battle and an early-season injection of confidence will always be welcome, whether you’re Rory McIlroy or Rory Sabbatini.

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