'It's good to be back': Rory McIlroy returns to Abu Dhabi looking to get 2021 off to a winning start
The Northern Irishman traditionally used the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship as his starting point but has not played the National Course since 2018
It might be some time before the world returns to normal, but at least the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship will be able to hint at a revival of the good old days this week.
For the first time since 2018, Rory McIlroy will be back in the field in the capital, for a tournament which was once inked in as his season curtain raiser.
The Northern Irishman has not featured on the European Tour for over a year, or anywhere at all since The Masters finally took place in November.
“It's good to be back,” McIlroy, the world No 6, said.
“I started my season in Abu Dhabi for 11 straight years, 2008 to 2018 and it's worked well for me. I've played well here. I enjoy playing in the desert, this style of golf.
“Obviously last year was a different year. I really didn't travel back over this part of the world and play at all.
“It's still obviously not where we want it to be, but I think we know a little bit more about what's going on.
"[That is] in terms of how the virus is and how it affects you or how it doesn't affect you in many cases, and feel a little more comfortable traveling. It's great to be out here and playing.”
McIlroy will play in the showpiece three-match on Thursday, going off from the National Course’s 10th tee at 7.30am along with world No 3 Justin Thomas and the European Tour No 1 Lee Westwood.
Four of McIlroy’s 28 tournament titles have come in the UAE, including his first as professional – the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic.
He has yet to claim the title in the capital, though, despite regularly contending near the summit of the leaderboard.
“I saw something the other day, of the 13 times I've played a first tournament of a season in my pro career, I've had 11 top fives,” McIlroy said.
“The fact that there is no win in there is a little surprising, I guess.
"I come out at the start of the year and I don't think you're as fully sharp as you would want to be but at least the optimism is there and the enthusiasm is there.
“There’s not any scar tissue built up from previous tournaments that year. I feel like every year is a fresh start and I like that feeling.
“I have played well the first tournament back and hopefully I can do the same again this week.”
McIlroy’s most recent appearance on the European Tour was at the 2019 DP World Tour Championship.
It meant he missed seeing Westwood, his playing partner on day one in Abu Dhabi, being crowned as the Order of Merit winner for the third time at the same event last month.
At 47, the Englishman became the oldest winner of the Race to Dubai. McIlroy is 31 himself now, and he says he feels as though the years are marching on.
“It’s funny,” McIlroy said. “I came here to Abu Dhabi as an 18-year-old.
"In 2008, I would have been an 18-year-old, the first time I played here was my first year on the European Tour, and I honestly really couldn't see myself at that point playing past 40.
“And then I'm 31 now and I'm like, jeez, that doesn't seem like that far away.
“I still feel like I have a good 15 years left in me. If I'm competitive and can still play, I can see myself doing what the likes of Lee and Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson] have done over the past couple of years.”
The presence of a star-studded field including the likes of McIlroy, Thomas, Westwood and Tommy Fleetwood will jar with the absence of the vast galleries that have flocked to the tournament in recent years.
Fleetwood, who won back-to-back titles in Abu Dhabi in 2017 and 2018, said the altered atmosphere at Tour events is still taking some getting used to.
“I think sports where there are not spectators, it does play a role and makes it a bit different,” said Fleetwood, who starts his opening round at 12.05pm alongside Shane Lowry and Justin Rose.
“You don't want to make excuses if there is crowds or not, really. It's down to you to play golf.
“But I think, sport without crowds is very different and the sooner we can get them back, the better.”
Updated: January 20, 2021 08:39 PM