Dubai: World No.7 Rory McIlroy returns to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic — the scene of his first professional win — in search of a second kick-start to his career this week.
The 24-year-old Northern Irish double Major winner became World and European No.1 three years after his first victory here in 2009. But a dip in form, not helped by a legal dispute with his management and a change in clubs, saw him go 12 months without a win last year.
He finally ended his barren spell at the Emirates Australian Open last month and started the 2014 season with a promising tied for second place finish at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Golf Championships last week.
Now engaged to Danish former World No.1 tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, the rumours of their supposed split have ceased and McIlroy appears happier in himself. All that remains now is to get the first win of the season under his belt, and there couldn’t be a more symbolic location for that comeback than Dubai — the place where it all began.
“I don’t disguise the fact that I am really fond of Dubai,” McIlroy told Gulf News prior to his opening of the Nike Golf store in Dubai Mall on Monday. “To me it’s a special place and somewhere I see as my second home.
“That affinity undoubtedly stems from my time here as an amateur and has stayed with me ever since. Having always felt welcome here really helped form the decision I made a number of years ago to make Dubai the hub of my pre-season preparation.
“Playing as an amateur a couple of times in the Desert Classic, before my 2009 win, had a great impact on me. I was, admittedly, a little star-struck by the occasion a few years back. But rubbing shoulders with some of the best players in the world allowed me a glimpse of where I wanted to be as a golfer.
“I hope Dubai continues to be somewhere I enjoy success. I’m now so very familiar with the quality courses, the layout and greens that I expect from myself really solid performances each time I play.”
Of his dip in form and subsequent need to bounce back, McIlroy said: “2013 may not have been a year in which I collected much silverware but I learnt so much through all the changes I chose to make. By no means was it a wasted year. I had new clubs to grow into and a few tweaks to my swing that took time to mature.
“I believe they [the changes] were necessary and will prove beneficial in the very long career I hope I have ahead of me. As for this year, and those to come, I think it would be wise if I came out with a coherent, workable strategy rather than blazing guns.”
That said, McIlroy is — by his own admission — approaching the Desert Classic as the place to make an early statement of intent.
“Some will use the event to find their footing early in the season,” he said. “For me, however, it’s a full-on, important tournament that I’ll go all out for and hope to secure.
“I feel that the better part of my pre-season preparation — much of it done here in Dubai — is complete, and really only tweaks here and there will be all I need for the remainder of the year.”
With the Classic’s 20 past champions invited back to celebrate the event’s 25th anniversary, the field is arguably at its strongest, however.
“Just about everybody is a threat this week, and a serious challenge could come from almost any camp,” he said. “When we consider the field — Tiger Woods’ wins in 2006 and 2008, Henrik Stenson’s in 2007 — there really is exceptional quality out there.
“Thomas Bjorn [current Race to Dubai leader] is enjoying great form, too, as is Rafael Cabrera-Bello [who finished tied for third and fourth in Qatar and Abu Dhabi]. And I don’t think [defending champion] Stephen Gallacher will give up his title without a fight either. I feel I’m enjoying a bit of form myself, so it is all shaping up to be an interesting week.”
Of the event’s anniversary, McIlroy added: “It certainly will be special, and there really is a great buzz about the place in anticipation. I think there will also be an enormous desire among us all to win given it’s the 25th anniversary — the quality of the field will add to that, too.
“There’ll be good banter, of course, and it will be great to see some of the guys I haven’t seen since well before Christmas. But then the good old rivalry will kick in and it will be every man for himself. And that will only add to the atmosphere of the event and make it a very exciting few days for the spectators.”
Asked if the strength of the field for this silver jubilee edition replicated that of a Major, and could somehow prove an early barometer for Major success ahead of The Masters in April, McIlroy replied: “I suppose there’s a lot to be said for momentum and building a head of steam coming towards the Majors.
“Where the Majors are concerned, it does seem that winners, generally speaking, do seem to be enjoying a degree of form before a win. The opposite, too, could be the case, where somebody just might get all the right ingredients together on the last day — and that’s golf for you. This week, though, does tick all the right boxes as excellent preparation for the busy season ahead.”