Just one stroke adrift of Martin Kaymer and tied for second place with England's Ian Poulter, the world No 10 has an opportunity to get 2010 off to the best possible start and silence a few critics at the same time.
What disappointed McIlroy most about his 2009 campaign was his failure to convert his good weeks into multiple wins. He won't mind too much if he goes down to a barrage of birdies by his opponents. But he won't want a repeat of the final round errors that allowed Simon Dyson to free wheel to victory in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
Ignoring Poulter for a moment, McIlroy knows that Kaymer is a far tougher character than Dyson.
The German broke four bones in his foot in a go-karting accident last year, missed two months of the season and still went into the Dubai World Championship with an outside chance of becoming European No 1.
The 25 year old has won four high profile tournaments in the last two years - Abu Dhabi, Munich, Paris and Loch Lomond - and looks even more unflappable than Bernhard Langer.
As Paul McGinley said last year: "People always talk about Rory being the best young player in the world. And he is too. But look at Martin Kaymer and what he has achieved. Think of the tournaments he has won quietly, under the radar. Martin doesn’t get the exposure the other guys get."
McIlroy has talent beyond belief but lacks what the old boxing aficionados call ring craft. Abu Dhabi 2010 could well be a big week in his career.