At the end of last season, Rory McIlroy’s manager politely declined a few media requests on behalf of the youngster who will eventually become his most important client.
He didn’t want more hype about a player who has won “just” twice since he turned professional in September 2007 yet generated as much newsprint as any multiple major champion. Given McIlroy’s immense talent, it’s a wonder than the hasn’t won half a dozen European Tour events already. Maybe more. But he hasn’t and Team McIlroy has decided that it’s time to put that right.
In 79 European Tour starts, McIlroy already has one win, six runner-up finishes, seven thirds and another 19 top-10s. In other words, he finishes in the top-10 every second week.
Turning those performances into more wins is now McIlroy’s primary objective and if he can play half as well as he did in opening with a seven under par 65 in the Dubai Desert Classic, he will be unstoppable at the Emirates Club.
He had eight birdies and his only bogey was a three-putt from long range at the par-three seventh, his 16th hole. He even missed a seven footer at the last for a 64 and set the world’s top-three with a daunting challenge when they headed out in rising winds in the afternoon.
Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer shot 69s and Tiger Woods scrambled to a flattering, one under 71 thanks to a majestic eagle three at the 18th.
The Big Three have all been prolific winners at some stage of their career. Not it’s McIlroy’s turn to do what all the greats have done in the past and start winning for fun. He is making a concerted effort to mature as a player. It’s not something you can force but it is obvious that his management team has taken steps to make sure that he gives himself every chance to get the maximum out of his talent this season.
Many talk of Kaymer as the world No 1 in waiting but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that McIlroy will be standing at the summit of world golf before the end of the year.
If he wins on Sunday, he will be fourth in the world and only a brave man would bet against him making his mark in the majors or one of the World Golf Championships.
Single again after a Christmas break up with his long-time girlfriend and playing exclusively in Europe, he has decided that he will play a Tiger-esque schedule so that he is fully “up for it” every time he plays. At times last year he felt he was just going through the motions in events - Houston and Killarney spring to mind. Yesterday he felt a nervous excitement on the first tee.
He said: “This is my second tournament in nine weeks, and it’s great to feel the buzz again. I did feel a little nervous going out this morning, because that’s the way you should feel. You know, I was talking at the start of the year about not playing as much to sort of feel like I prepare properly for the events. You get through four, five, six tournaments in a row but when you play every once in awhile, you really get yourself motivated for it. It was great to feel like that today and hope to feel like that for the rest of the tournament.”
Asked if he was stale at times last year, he said: “Definitely. This is great; cutting six or seven events off the schedule this year is going to be fantastic.”
With the advice of his manager and his caddie, McIlroy has decided to try and curb his attacking instincts so that he can cut out the course management errors that have cost him strokes, especially on the par fives.
When he won in Dubai two years ago, he opened with a 64 but felt it was hard work. So how did this 65 feel by comparison?
“A little easier, because I’m not putting myself under as much pressure on the golf course, going at every pin and trying to make myself hit great shots all the time. I’m sort of, as I said, just thinking about it a bit more and trying to decide when is a good time to go for it and when isn’t.”
So it was an effortless 65 from a young player who has gained even more distance off the tee thanks to his intensive fitness regime.
It might all have been about the game’s Big Three before the start at the Emirates Club but you get the feeling that the star of the Chosen One is about to rise in the east.