It is exactly one year to the day since Rory McIlroy saw his Dubai Desert Classic hopes end in a watery grave when a flailed three wood found the water short of the 18th green.
Meath also went on to get trounced by Galway in Salthill, trailing 1-09 to 0-00 at half time and taking 45 minutes to register a score, but anyway…
Twelve months on – albeit aided by some deja vu on that hole in round 3 – we saw McIlroy learn his lesson and banish those demons in the most un-Rory-like fashion.
Wedge, wedge, putt.
Golf can be a simple game at times, after all. For all the power hitting of Dustin Johnson, it was a drastic improvement in his wedge game which saw him win the 2016 US Open and 2020 Masters while enjoying a prolonged period at world number one.
2022 proved that the penny had finally dropped for McIlroy and the 18th on Monday was another box ticked.
The Holywood star has seen a transformation in his wedge game since last April but it was refreshing to see him rely on it and trust it when he needed to.
“I think the short game display that I put on this week was as good as I can remember,” he said after the tournament.
There is no doubt the McIlroy of old would have attempted to lash at a long iron and try to muscle a shot over the water and onto the back of the green – which would have left a more difficult chip than the 90 yarder he left himself.
For a player who is not used to playing that way, it took courage for him to opt away from being aggressive and actually play conservatively and play the percentages.
Giving yourself a chance to win but making sure you cannot lose. From the fairway you can hit a bad shot, that happens. But had he gone for the green from the rough, inches from the hazard, it would have been the wrong decision.
McIlroy made the right decision and hence lies the change in him.
A golfer whose game was built around his driving is now an all-round complete machine and a worthy world number one.
The Rory/Reed rivalry has been rumbling on even before the completely blown out of proportion ‘teegate,’ happened in what seems like a lifetime ago given there was a Monday finish.
Beating Reed regardless of what has ensued between the pair would have meant a great deal to McIlroy given that ‘Captain America’ has undoubtedly had the upper hand over the four-time major champion on the big days.
There was that sensational Ryder Cup singles match at Hazeltine in 2016 and then the Masters Sunday in 2018 which undoubtedly would have stung Rory, so to pip Reed to the post in a tournament as big as the Dubai Desert Classic feels like Rory getting one over on Reed.
Of course, with the Christmas Eve subpoena and that incident on the driving range, not to add in Reed’s ‘questionable’ brush with a tree and a pair of binoculars, it all built up to something that felt season defining for McIlroy.
It was proof that the world number one can win with his ‘B’ game, because let’s be honest, he had a two-way miss going with both the driver and his irons.
It felt like every time McIlroy appeared on screen he was standing over a five or six foot par putt – and holing them. The 33-year-old played well in fits and starts with some blistering streaks thrusting him into contention.
A sloppy first round was halted early on Thursday before he returned to the course for his final three holes on Friday with a birdie, eagle, birdie finish.
Round three saw him burst out of the traps with four successive birdies before seven scrappy pars were arrested by four birdies in five holes.
It felt like he was being rewarded for grinding it out, turning 70s into 67s and turning 68s into 65s by virtue of his ability to battle and stay alive.
Heading into the bulk of the 2023 season, it feels like McIlroy no longer has to drive well to win. In his last seven starts since August he has picked up three wins, a runner-up and three fourth place finishes.
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