Such is Rory McIlroy’s stature in the game that a fourth and record-setting Dubai Desert Classic victory was only the topic of conversation for a short period in the post-tournament press conference before the focus was switched to Augusta National and what will be his 10th attempt at earning himself a Green Jacket and completing the career grand slam.
“Augusta is still a long way away in golfing terms,” he said, refusing to be drawn into comparisons between previous years where he’s driven down Magnolia Lane both with and without a win in the preceding weeks. “A lot can change in two-and-a-half months, 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.”
Nevertheless, every week presents opportunities to learn and grow and his come-from-behind victory in Dubai was a lesson in itself.
“I’ve told this story numerous times now about [being on] the first green on Friday, and Brooks was on the eighth green and I saw the big leaderboard, and I was already ten behind at that point,” he recalled. “I was ten 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. Yeah, that’s a huge thing for me.
“But you know, everything now is, yeah, 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.”
It is really quite remarkable that the same man who bristled with frustration as he walked off the final green in rounds one and two was all smiles as he walked off the 18th green on Sunday, though he knows that he still wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders in the final round.
“Yeah, I think it would feel — if the scores on the weekend had been flipped and I shot 70, 63, I’d probably be like, yeah, that was amazing,” he said.
“But the 70 today, I did what I needed to do. I felt like I played a very controlled round of golf. The two birdies on eight and nine were huge to sort of give me that cushion going into the back nine.
“But yeah, the golf course definitely played a little trickier at the weekend. It was hard to get the ball very close because of how firm the greens were. And you know, I thought even after I finished on Friday, I thought if I shot two 67s over the weekend, I would have a decent chance to win, and if that had of been the case, I would have tied or 13-under. I wasn’t too far away with the prediction, and I went one better than that and ended up winning the tournament.
“Yeah, it’s a great start to the season. I started well last year with the win here. That was a little more in dramatic on the last green compared to that there. It’s a great platform to build from. I know I’m playing good golf.”
He also revealed that a minor putting setup change, prompted by Brad Faxon, helped turn things around on the greens prior to that blistering 63 to thrust himself firmly back into the mix on Saturday morning.
“He sent it across without a prompt from me,” he said, referencing video clips his putting coach had sent. “He just said, ‘look, I hate bothering you when you’re at a tournament, but I just saw a couple of things.’ Sent me a couple videos. Explained what he saw, and it’s not anything new. It’s actually the exact same thought with my putting that I had at the 2022 TOUR Championship. I ended up going on to win that, as well.
“It was a familiar thought and a familiar feel. I definitely felt like I putted a bit better on the weekend.”
Dubai has always had a special place in McIlroy’s heart, temporarily residing there early in his professional career and winning six times in the Emirate, including his maiden professional victory at the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic.
This time, both his parents were in attendance, and he took the opportunity to take a walk down memory lane of sorts, reflecting on the part that Dubai, and this tournament in particular, has played in his career.
“Yeah, I was saying in an interview earlier that my — the arc of my career and Dubai in general have sort of like tracked each other pretty consistently along the way,” he reminisced. “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 ten 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, to be sitting here, you know, 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.
“So it’s amazing to sit here. 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’s 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.
“I certainly don’t take anything for granted, and I always appreciate the opportunity to be able to do what I do. Yeah, it feels amazing to sit here and have won that big coffee pot four times.”