As a two-time winner already of the DP World Tour Championship, and with a few kinks in his game ironed out post-Ryder Cup prompting victory in his most recent outing, Rory McIlroy was understandably happy to be back at the European Tour’s season finale.
The former world No 1, based for some time now in America, missed the tournament last year for only the second time, preferring to stay Stateside as golf and the world attempted to get to grips with the pandemic.
McIlroy is back now, though, which is great for all concerned. Most of all, presumably, for himself: aside from victories in 2012 and 2015, the Northern Irishman has finished runner-up at Jumeirah Golf Estates, third once, and has three other top-5s and one more top-10 in his 10 appearances.
Last time he competed on the Earth Course, in 2019, he was fourth. So, welcome back, Rory.
“I wasn't always planning to be here and play," McIlroy said on Tuesday. "After the Ryder Cup, I didn't really know what I was going to do. But I decided to play a bit more and try to push through some of the things I was working on in my game.
“I came through the other side of that. So it's important to be here. I missed it last year because of Covid - I just didn't want to deal with the travel and the bubble and that sort of stuff.
"But this year is a little different and a little more normal, I guess. So it's good to be here. It's a place I've had success on. It's a course that suits my game really well. I'll have a good chance this week. I don't feel like I need to do anything too special to give myself a chance on Sunday.”
At 20th in the Race to Dubai, McIlroy won’t have what would've surely been an extra special fourth seasonal crown to aim for. Nonetheless, he arrives off the back of victory at the CJ Cup last month in Las Vegas - his 20th win on the PGA Tour.
It has flipped his season into the A-grade bracket, he feels; not bad when he'd contemplated sitting out the rest of the year following a disappointing showing at the Ryder Cup. In Wisconsin, McIlroy took one point from a possible four - his Sunday singles win against Xander Schauffele - as Europe were beaten convincingly. A tearful and typically candid post-round interview followed.
“I feel like it's been a year of exploration, learning,” said McIlroy in Dubai. He triumphed also at the Wells Fargo Championship in May, but by August had fallen to 16th in the world rankings – his lowest spot since 2009. He now sits at No 8.
“There's been some good parts - obviously the couple of wins in the States were nice," McIlroy added. "I was tied for the lead with nine holes to go at a major championship, at the US Open.
“There's been some good stuff in there. I've worked hard. I've learned a few things. And I feel like I've went through that sort of barrier, struggle, if you will, and then I came through the other side.
“It's been an interesting year. I don't regret any of it. I think it's been a good year. Happy to be here. Happy to feel like my game is in good shape. I got some confidence from the win in Vegas. Try to finish the year on a high.”
Rounding off his campaign this week and then with Tiger Woods' Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas in a fortnight, a return to his roots has contributed to the conviction. McIlroy, 32, confirmed last week that he was back working with childhood coach Michael Bannon on a more permanent basis, having spent the middle of the season with instructor Pete Cowen.
The four-time major champion attributes relocating his game to focusing more on his own on visualisation.
“I don't know, it's like Michael has always been my coach,” McIlroy said. “He's coached me since I was 8 years old. He's also been there, even if he wasn't visible, he's been in the background for the last six months, and Michael knows my swing and my game better than I probably know it at this point.
“But those two weeks in between the Ryder Cup and Vegas I feel like I figured a few things out on my own. Which sometimes you need to do.
“I've played golf a long time. I think I know what I'm doing for the most part. And that was really it. I said last week I've always had a relationship with Pete; I've known Pete since I was 13 years old from the Irish set-up, and if I want to ask his opinion on something, I can still do that.
“If I feel like I need his input, I'll ask for it. As of right now, I'm happy with the set-up that I've basically always had, and I'm excited for the road ahead.”
That road plots its path for the most part in the United States. McIlroy concedes the revamped European Tour – it was announced last week that, from next season, the circuit will become the DP World Tour and offer significantly increased prize money – will not trigger a major change to his schedule.
Meanwhile, he defended Jon Rahm’s decision to sit out the DP World Tour Championship, even though the world No 1 was well placed to win the Race to Dubai for the second time in three years. Rahm lies third in the seasonal standings, behind only Billy Horschel and current leader Collin Morikawa.
“I fully understand,” McIlroy said. “He just won his first major this year, he’s had his first child, he won this thing the year before last.
“He’s given his all all year. He’s had his trials and tribulations as well. He was an absolute star at the Ryder Cup for us. He couldn’t have given more and he’s given a lot to the European Tour already. I don't think anyone can criticise him for not being here this week.”