12 months ago, a final-hole birdie was enough for Rory McIlroy to hold off a charging Patrick Reed, putting an end to a week where the golfing content gods delivered in spades.
McIlroy’s 15-footer on the 18th green could scarcely have been sweeter, given the controversy earlier in the week when ‘tee-gate’ erupted following McIlroy’s refusal to shake Reed’s hand and the Holywood man’s subsequent explanation that a subpoena, bearing Reed’s name, had been delivered to the McIlroy household on Christmas Eve.
This naturally left a sour taste in the then world-number-one’s mouth, and, over the course of the tournament, Reed would again be the source of controversy after inaccurately identifying his ball after it got stuck in a tree, claiming he was ‘100 percent certain’ the ball was his, even though television replays proved that he was at the wrong tree.
So it’s safe to say that the 2024 staging has a lot to live up to. But early indications are that it’s going to give it it’s best shot, with a stellar field assembled at the Emirates Golf Club, including the defending champion, last week’s Dubai Invitational winner Tommy Fleetwood, recently crowned DP World Tour Player of the Year Adrian Meronk, Open champion Brian Harman, twice Open runner-up Cameron Young, former world number one Adam Scott and strong additional Irish interest with Padraig Harrington and Tom McKibbin.
McIlroy now has a hat-trick of Dubai Desert Classic victories, and a fourth win would see him surpass Ernie Els as the event’s record title holder, having made his professional breakthrough when he topped the leaderboard in 2009.
Such is McIlroy’s consistency in recent years, even several trips to the water and a three-putt from two feet saw him lead through 71 holes as he made his season debut last week, and with an extra week’s practice under his belt, he is once again the firm favourite to be in the winners’ circle come Sunday evening.
For Harrington, this is a first opportunity to test out his health and fitness after overcoming pneumonia and a ‘partial’ lung collapse over the winter break. Despite amassing 15 victories on the European Tour since he made his debut in 1996, a victory in the Middle East is one of the few remaining accolades he’s yet to achieve, though came close on his 2023 season debut in Abu Dhabi when finishing fourth, two strokes behind winner Victor Perez.
The Dubliner still believes he has the game to mix it with the younger generation and has proven it, even being touted as a possible selection for Luke Donald’s European side at last year’s Ryder Cup before going slightly off the boil in the lead in.
Tom McKibbin, 31 years Harrington’s junior, was playing his first Rolex Series events as a Tour rookie last year when narrowly missing the cut in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but this time around he arrives as a DP World Tour winner, having played his way into the DP World Tour Championship in November, and hot on the heels of a credible T25 performance at last week’s Dubai Invitational.
The clear goal for McKibbin in 2024 is to secure one of the 10 PGA Tour cards on offer – providing the global golfing landscape doesn’t drastically shift in the meantime – and the Race to Dubai points on offer in the Roles Series events mean that strong performances in each of them will go a long way to tying one of those cards up.
Seldom shy of birdies, it’s often been a few costly holes over the course of a tournament that have been McKibbin’s downfall, which is completely understandable for a player just a month past his 21st birthday. With new equipment and a new ball to adjust to, his showing at Dubai Creek is evidence that he’s bedding it in nicely and the course plays into the hands of the longer hitters, and like his fellow club man, he’s got power in spades.
McIlroy, of course, will be among the featured groups, joining Adam Scott and DP World Tour Championship winner Nicolai Hojgaard, and they get their opening round underway at 04:10 Irish time.
Harrington and McKibbin will play in back-to-back groupings, the former with Julien Brun and Marcus Armitage at 03:20 and the latter playing alongside Zander Lombard and Matthew Southgate ten minutes later.