Relaxed Rory McIlroy returns to Dubai Desert Classic for another shot at glory

Northern Irishman targets fourth Classic trophy at Majlis Course

Rory McIlroy during the Pro-Am prior to the Hero Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

What a difference a year makes. Judged by his demeanour during a blustery pro-am ahead of the 2024 Hero Dubai Desert Classic, it would seem as though Rory McIlroy had not a care in the world.

The strong winds blowing off the Arabian Gulf were making it tough for players to control their ball. Even for such a master as McIlroy, let alone the amateurs. The rough at the Emirates Golf Club this week looks fearfully punishing, too.

Plus, just a few days ago down by the Creek, McIlroy had passed up the chance to win on his opening outing of the season with a late, late capitulation at the Dubai Invitational.

And yet he was in a perfectly sprightly mood on his return to the Majlis Course on Wednesday. When spectators asked over the ropes if he would mind signing their souvenir Classic flags, he did not just oblige, but stopped to chat, too.

He bounced into the pre-tournament press briefing ahead of his title defence starting on Thursday full of pep.

It felt like the polar opposite of the same point 12 months ago, when the Northern Irishman arrived in Dubai with the weight of the world of golf on his shoulders.

There had been the storm of the tee peg on the driving range with Patrick Reed. McIlroy revealed the American LIV-rebel had subpoenaed him on Christmas Eve, and was not in the best mood in his presence.

McIlroy was fighting fires on behalf of the established tours against the Saudi-backed newcomer, and it was starting the consume him. Still, somehow, he held on and staved off a challenge from Reed, as he claimed his third Classic title.

Now, McIlroy has been able to set aside his role as the most elite of shop stewards, and is focusing instead on himself. It appears to suit him.

“I think I've certainly got a little more time to put into my game,” McIlroy said.

“I'm probably a little unburdened with some of the things that I was going through over the past couple of years. I feel like my focus is firmly back on stuff inside the ropes, and that is a really nice feeling.”

The world No 2’s duel with Reed last year made for one of the greatest of all Classics, although the champion himself said it was something to endure rather than enjoy at times.

“I remember standing on the 10th tee and I think Patrick had just made eagle and I'm just like, ‘Had to be him,’” McIlroy said.

“But I think the sort of mental fortitude I showed on that back nine to not let my emotions get the better of me and really stay focused, and to make that birdie on the last to win by one, yeah, it meant [a lot].

“In the grand scheme of things, are people going to remember my third Dubai Desert Classic? I don't know. But it meant a lot to me.

“I felt like I really had to control my mind and my thoughts and my emotions on that back nine.”

If McIlroy retains his title this weekend, he will become the first player in history to win four times at the Classic.

It would be a fitting honour for a player whose career has been inextricably linked to the city.

“I feel like this tournament has been a staple in my life for at least half of it,” said McIlroy, who will start at 8.10am on the 10th tee on Thursday, playing alongside Nicolai Hojgaard and Adam Scott.

“I've been coming back to this tournament for 18 years, so over half my life. [I have] wonderful memories of Dubai.

“I feel like it was a place that gave my one of my first opportunities to come out and play on this tour. My first sponsor was from here. My first win was here.

“There were a lot of firsts for me in this region. It's been an incredible journey, and I'm always excited to get back to Dubai with the success I've had here on this golf course and over at Jumeirah Golf Estates, too, at the end of the year.”

Updated: January 17, 2024, 11:18 AM