McIlroy is flying high and aiming higher

A balloon ride above Dubai leaves the defending Desert Classic champion speechless, but his clubs will be doing the talking.

Rory McIlroy underwent a rapid rise after securing his maiden European Tour title at last year's Dubai Desert Classic.
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DUBAI // Almost immediately after Rory McIlroy secured his maiden European Tour title at last year's Dubai Desert Classic, the young Northern Irishman underwent a rapid rise in global prominence; an elevation in expectations. Yet even the 20-year-old, who now drives an Audi R8 and owns a house worth a reported £2.2 million (Dh12.8m), was left speechless when he experienced his latest dizzying new height.

To mark the announcement of McIlroy's three-year sponsorship extension with Jumeirah, the Dubai-based hotel group, yesterday took their star client 4,000 feet up in a hot air balloon. The world No 9 was able to view both the emirate's old district, Deira, and a vision of the future, Dubai Marina. The contrast between old and new is stark - much, believes McIlroy, like his own game. "You know, I've gained a lot of experience since that win last year. I've put myself in a lot of great positions to win golf tournaments that I haven't quite finished off," he said. "But I've learnt from those experiences and I feel as if I am a more rounded player. I feel as if, when I get into those positions now, I am a lot more comfortable in final rounds and final groups."

The Race to Dubai runner-up was in the final group again two weeks ago at the Abu Dhabi Championship and showed fortitude to fight when it appeared a lost cause. While he did not come out on top at the UAE capital's National Course - McIlroy finished third as Martin Kaymer walked away with the trophy - he did his reputation no harm. The Ryder Cup hopeful has had seven top five finishes in his past nine events and, as well as testing himself on the US PGA Tour this season, says he is focused on developing further in a bid to add to his lone Dubai title.

"It's great to have seven top-fives, but if you don't have a win in there somewhere, it's not that good," he said. "That's the level I'm trying to get to. I want to just keep improving and try to keep the progress going. Even in Abu Dhabi over the past three years: the first year I finished 11th and then I finished fifth and this year I finished third. If I can keep getting my finishes better and better each year, that's all I want."

If McIlroy wins at Emirates Golf Club this week, he will become the first player to successfully defend the title. And having played his first majors in 2009 and finished tied for third at the PGA Championship, he knows the knowledge he is gaining can only help in his quest to top the world rankings. "I'm gaining experience in the four majors, so by the time I'm 24-25 I will have played 20-25 majors," he said. "So, hopefully, by then I should know how to finish them off as that's obviously the ultimate goal - to try and win major championships and try to become the best player I can be."

McIlroy is hoping to end this weekend at the top of the leaderboard, but he has no intention of topping the city's skyline. "It was great to see Dubai from 4,000 feet, but I won't be rushing into the basket again any time soon," he laughed. "My knuckles were white."