Rory McIlroy ready to make new memories at 2022 Dubai Desert Classic

Two-time champion has experienced many memorable moments at the Majlis, both as a player and a young spectator

Rory McIlroy during the pro-am prior to the Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club. Getty Images
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Back at the Dubai Desert Classic for the first time since 2018, Rory McIlroy’s return was always going to conjure plenty of memories for the four-time major champion.

To be fair, he has some back catalogue to recall.

In 2009, McIlroy sealed his first professional victory, aged 19, at Emirates Golf Club. Six years later, when world No 1, he won again to secure a 10th European Tour triumph.

On his most recent visit, McIlroy finished runner-up to China’s Li Haotong, although he departed understandably frustrated having let slip a two-stroke lead with eight holes to play.

Yet the Northern Irishman's affinity with the Classic actually stretches way back, to 2006. Aged 16, and already a highly regarded amateur, McIlroy received a tournament invite to test his prodigious talent on the Majlis Course.

He would miss the cut, but famously borrowed a press credential and a photographer’s camera to catch a closer glimpse of Tiger Woods. By Sunday, the vaunted American had defeated Ernie Els in a play-off to capture the title.

“I had a better view than most being able to get inside the ropes," McIlroy said on Wednesday. "Tiger hit a 5-iron out of the right rough on 10, landed on the green and stopped it on the green, and to this day, it was one of the best golf shots I've ever seen. Just sticks out in my mind and I was right there for it.

“I loved getting up close and watching those guys play and try to learn something from them and get inspiration. If there's young kids running around this week, [and] they can feel the same way or feel the same things as I thought back then, then that's a pretty cool feeling.”

These days McIlroy, like Woods, resides as one of the most recognisable names in golf. Asked on Wednesday which professional he would recommend his 16-year-old self follows this week, McIlroy quipped: “Well, me.”

Jokes aside, the world No 8 reeled off a number of reasons why the Dubai Desert Classic, now under title sponsors and upgraded for the first time to the Rolex Series, represents a must-follow this week.

Liverpool players take part in Desert Classic Pro-Am

McIlroy is one of three top-10 players competing, alongside world No 2 Collin Morikawa and world No 5 Viktor Hovland.

“There's so many guys.” McIlroy said. “Obviously Collin, Viktor. You have so many guys that have been part of the tour for so long. [Padraig] Harrington, [Ian] Poulter, [Lee] Westwood, [Henrik] Stenson, [Colin Montgomerie] for sure. How many more times are people going to get a chance to see Monty play golf in this part of the world?”

McIlroy, 32, spent four years as a Dubai resident, so knows the Majlis Course probably about as well as anyone in the field. He describes it as a "great golf course, fun to play", even if not all those reminisces are necessarily positive.

“Two years stick out in particular because I've won, but I've had plenty of chances to win,” said McIlroy, who has finished in the top 10 in his past eight appearances there. “Even something as stupid as standing on 11th tee today.

Rory McIlroy won his first European Tour title at the 2009. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

“First time I played that hole since 2018 in the final round, and all I thought about was hitting in the left bunker and making bogey and Haotong made two. That was a big swing in the tournament, and he ended up winning. That's obviously not a great memory at all, but there's a lot of memories.”

McIlroy will be hoping to create some more welcome moments come Sunday. He began his 2022 season last week, just about making the cut in testing conditions at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, before mounting a charge on Sunday. However, he bogeyed three of the final five holes at Yas Links to eventually finish tied-12th.

“It was a good weekend,” McIlroy said. “A disappointing finish, but I felt some of the golf I played over the weekend was very encouraging.

“But it's early in the year. All I can ask for is getting myself into contention, trying to hit shots under pressure when it matters. Hopefully I get another chance to do that this week.”

Updated: January 26, 2022, 12:35 PM