Two free swinging stallions from the Taylormade stable tee up together for the first time in 2018 today as Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson are all set to do battle at the HSBC Championship in Abu Dhabi.
McIlroy gets his season under way after a much maligned 2017 that underwhelmed the populace by his own enviable standards. It was his first winless season out on Tour, hampered by injuries, indecision and timing. A stress fracture to his rib followed Nike’s decision to move away from club manufacturing, while a fairytale wedding coupled with a lust for life played their part in his shortcomings too.
Yet as Rory endured arguably his worst spell of form as a professional, Dustin Johnson recovered from a slip down the stairs on Masters Week to record four victories on the PGA Tour last year.
He nonchalantly rose to world number one in February and looked for all the world that he’d take some beating in the Majors before his tumble. The conspiracy theorists were out in force following another Johnson sabbatical, but whatever the reasons for his absence, his disinterested demeanour returning to the fairways was a timely reminder of a tonic missed all summer.
Indeed DJ has shown no ill-effects from the festive season either, notching victory number one of the New Year already with a resounding six shot victory at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. All he’s lacking now is a true rival to challenge his position atop the food chain. Let’s hope McIlroy can play that part.
Having pipped Johnson to the $10 million FedEx Cup bonanza in 2016 after his Tour Championship victory over Ryan Moore in a playoff, it’s fair to say that the roles have been reversed between the pair ever since. Johnson’s short-game, particularly his wedges, have improved to unrecognisable levels of accuracy whilst Rory’s short-stick exploits have suffered through an uncharacteristic period of lost confidence.
Now fighting fit, irregular heartbeat aside, McIlroy will need his finger on the pulse early doors to hone his velvet touch once more. Ranked 3rd in strokes gained off the tee, McIlroy ranked 145th in strokes picked up from between 100-125 yards out. With best friend Harry Diamond on the bag full time this year, the pair will need to dial in the right numbers quickly in order to build a rapport that extends beyond friendship. One that will be sure to test them both.
If the game was played on natural talent and that alone, I firmly believe that McIlroy and Johnson are still leagues apart, but with Rory’s dedication under the spotlight of late and Johnson’s commitment stronger than ever, a gap between god given talent and brute strength has been bridged by hard work and repetition. Undoubtedly it’s now McIlroy who’s playing second fiddle to the American.
They say Rory has a big ego – most successful sportspeople do – but if that really is the case, then he’ll be coming into this season with bruises all over him. In fact if he’s not hurting I’d be worried. But something tells me that last year was a gap year in the life of Rory McIlroy.
For the umpteenth time I’m predicting a Rory revival. This week may come too soon but momentum is a powerful tool in sport. Let’s hope McIlroy finds some early.