Fears are growing that Rory McIlroy will skip next year’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch but host Paul McGinley is keeping his fingers crossed that the Co Down man will make the trip west.
McIlroy said in Dubai yesterday that a compressed global calendar will force him to concentrate on the US PGA Tour next year and has just two “pure” European Tour events pencilled in for the early part of 2019.
McIlroy will play in the European Masters in Switzerland due to a commitment to sponsors Omega, but believes the "true European Tour season" does not start until July, when he will decide between the Irish Open at Lahinch or Scottish Open.
"I am going to try and play the week before Majors as three of my four Major wins have been by playing the week before," he said suggesting he will skip the Co Clare event.
Players are only required to compete in a minimum of four European Tour-sanctioned tournaments outside the Major Championships and World Golf Championships.
But the global calendar compressed in 2019 with the US PGA moving from August to May, McIlroy has decided to kick off his season at the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January and concentrate on the PGA Tour for most of the season.
By opting to skip the Desert Swing in January and February, he will not tee it up in Europe until the summer and has yet to decide if he will wait until the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, which is sandwiched between the Irish Open and The Open at Royal Portrush, to return “home” or head for Co Clare instead.
While McGinley was banking on McIlroy’s presence when Lahinch was announced as the 2019 venue last May, he was in the dark yesterday about the Co Down man’s intentions.
"Ultimately in professional golf, it's up to the player and his team to decide on scheduling,” McGinley said.
“Rory has played a huge part in reestablishing the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open as one of the premier events on the European Tour and we are obviously hoping he continues his support in 2019.
“We are well down the road on areas of detailed planning and course set up as we endeavour to make Lahinch an Irish Open to remember "
The potential absence of McIlroy would be a blow especially if the pride of Holywood goes on to complete the career Grand Slam by winning the Masters next April.
While the famous Old Course at Lahinch and its unique village atmosphere will make for a unique atmosphere, the Irish Open’s clash with the 4 July celebrations in the US could make it more difficult to persuade some US-based players from making the trip, even if the opposite field PGA Tour event is the new, 3M Open in Minnesota.
McGinley wants Lahinch to be a "major" party and has high hopes that a course set up, similar to what the players will face in The Open at Royal Portrush two weeks later, will persuade some of the world’s best to turn up for what will be a $7 million Rolex Series event.
If McIlroy skips the Irish Open, it will be the first time he has missed the event as a professional and make him the first big home name to skip it for a non-injury related reason since Darren Clarke opted not to play at Druids Glen in 1998, ostensibly to better prepare for The Open at Birkdale.
But the Northern Irish star (29) said ahead of the DP World Tour Championship yesterday that he is reassessing scheduling options due to the new global calendar.
His decision is no surprise if we go back to what was said when McIlroy handed over the Irish Open hosting duties to McGinley, Darren Clarke, Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell for the next four years.
“He has certainly helped regain the momentum of the Irish Open and he has done his bit. He wants to remain involved going forward but the Irish Open was a weight of responsibility,” McGinley said in February..
“Even though he has won it, he has missed the cut for four of the last five years. So while his commitment to playing will remain, it is a question of handing over responsibility and we are happy to take on the mantle.
“We owe Rory a lot for where the Irish Open has come from and where it is going. So it is only right that we take responsibility off Rory's shoulders and let him do what he does best.
“The fewer duties he has to perform around the Irish Open, the more he will be focussed. And the more he is focussed, the better he will play.
“It is only right that we share that responsibility with Rory now and with him in the prime of his career, let him focus on what he does best."
That he hasn’t won a major since he decided to host the Irish Open at Royal County Down in 2015, growing it from a middle-tier, €2 million event into the $7m Rolex Series event it is today, is probably a coincidence.
But with his duty done for now as far as hosting the event is concerned, not playing it can only be attributed to his desire to make the second decade of his career as successful as the first.
“I’m not getting any younger,” McIlroy said 12 months ago.
Getting back to hitting fairways is his priority now and with the PGA Tour dominating the first half of the year, he’s going to focus on his schedule there for now.
“I am starting my year off in the States, and that will be the big focus of mine up until the end of August, and then we will assess from there,” said McIlroy, who is taking a six-week winter break before returning for the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Kapalua from January 3-6.
"I guess my thing is that I want to play against the strongest fields week-in and week-out and for the most part of the season that is in America. If I want to continue to contend in the majors and to continue my journey back towards the top of the game, then that's what I want to do.
"Right now that is all sort of up in the air, but if it were to be that I don't fulfil my membership next year, it's not a Ryder Cup year so it's not the end of the world.
"I am always going to want to play the Ryder Cup, so if that does happen so be it and I will try and make the Ryder Cup team the year after."
McIlroy is supportive of European Tour CEO Keith Pelley’s decision to move the BMW PGA Championship to September and the Italian Open to October as the US PGA switched from August to May.
"It is a big shift but I think it's good for a lot of reasons," McIlroy added. "It is good for the European Tour because they have events to shine.
"Wentworth is going to be in September, the Italian Open and a lot of the big events are going to be after the PGA Tour season, so they are going to be the biggest events and strongest events in the world that week which is a good thing.”
He gave himself a B minus for his season so far but admitted that if he wins his third DP World Tour Championship in Dubai this week, he might upgrade himself to a B if the new driver he’s put in the bag behaves itself.
“I don't want to continue to dwell on the negatives,” he said of a season that’s brought him one won, three runner ip finishes and another six top 10s.
“There’s been a lot of positives in there, as well. I've played very consistently. I've had ten Top 10s. I finished second and had a great chance to win The Open. I played in the final group and had a great chance to win the Masters. I've had chances to win big, big tournaments.
“Obviously the game's right there. It's just a matter of doing it when I need to do it most. Results-wise, it hasn't been the year that I wanted, even though I played in six final groups, and in '16 and '17 combined, I played in three or four final groups. That's been a real big positive.
“But there's a difference between getting into those final groups and finishing the job off, and finishing the job off hasn't been quite where I've wanted it to be.
“So that's something to work on next year, and the only way you're going to get better at it is by putting yourself in those positions and learning each and every time.”
His complaints about his driver don’t explain all the gaps in his game but they do explain the plethora of big misses.
Getting his reliable draw back is going to be key in 2019.
“So I've had that right miss in the bag with the driver pretty much all year,” he said. “It's never been a shot that I've had. It's always been, if anything, I'd miss it left, I'd turn it over too much and for example, if I see a dead straight hole, I don't see a dead straight shot. If anything, I see maybe a little draw, and I haven't been able to do that this year. So I've sort of been playing against my natural instincts, which sometimes is tough to trust.
“Yeah, it's sort of been in the bag all year. I drove it well parts of the year, but then whenever I got into final groups and under pressure, that right shot began to become mora apparent.
“So you're always trying to make your equipment help you as much as you can. I think back to the first tee shot at Augusta on Sunday; Wentworth on the final day; Akron, final day; TOUR Championship, final day. The reason I didn't play better was because I didn't put the ball in the fairway, and the reason I didn't put the ball in the fairway is because I have this right miss with the driver.
“It's better, this driver. Even some of the shots I hit on Sunday in Sun City, I felt if I had of put the same swing on it with the other driver, it would have been in the bushes right, but it actually was hanging in there which is great to see.”