DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Since Rory McIlroy arrived in the United Arab Emirates over the weekend, he has seen his world No. 1 ranking preserved due to another man’s missed putt in California, been embroiled in drama on the driving range to find out if he ignored a defector from LIV Golf and got himself teeed off in retaliation, and mentioned how he received a subpoena on Christmas Eve.
But on Thursday, after one of the most bizarre tournament preludes in recent memory, McIlroy is set to play a competitive round for the first time in 2023 and give his sport a taste of his form which has reignited some of the fever l ‘last year. who followed him earlier in his career.
“I obviously trained at home and I trained well, but it’s always the first tournament of the year, I’m going back to the golf course, I’m just trying to get comfortable with some shots on the course and visuals and all that kind of stuff,” McIlroy said on Wednesday in Dubai, where he had a debacle last January but had enough performance in November to claim the season points crown for DP World. Tour, while the European Tour is currently marketed.
“I’m sure it will be a little rusty to start the week, but hopefully I can shake it off,” he continued.
In some ways, the scrutiny has never been greater. When McIlroy last won a major championship, he was 25 and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund was not endorsing a stellar rival of the world’s top men’s golf tours. He is now 33, with a frustrating record of close calls but a newfound stature as the golf establishment’s preeminent spokesperson against LIV.
He has spent much of the past year publicly answering questions about the Saudi-backed circuit — in response to one on Wednesday, for example, he effectively called LIV chief executive Greg Norman weak — and answer them in private. He played exceptional golf nonetheless, winning the European Tour points title, winning the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup and finishing no worse than eighth in the majors of 2022. The price, he suggested on Wednesday , was exhaustion and the decision to “sort of distance himself from the game of golf” for a while.
After playing an exhibition event with Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods on December 10, he hid his clubs and only took them back this year. Sticking to his preference to start calendar year competitions in the Middle East, he exercised his right to skip the PGA Tour Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. He held the No. 1 ranking, which he still reclaimed in October, but Scottie Scheffler came close to taking it back on Sunday, and Jon Rahm is threatening, having won two tournaments this year, both at 27 under par. (Rahm could essentially grab the top spot on Saturday, when the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines, where he won the 2021 US Open, wraps up.)
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“We all know Jon is one of the best players in the world, whether there’s a 1 next to his name or a 2 next to his name, it doesn’t really matter,” said McIlroy about Rahm on Wednesday.
It may be true. But despite all the flaws of the official world golf ranking system, including the formula that underrated Rahm’s game in recent months, there’s still power in the mystique of first place and value in his marketing. .
The Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Club, where McIlroy picked up two wins and made his first cut on the European Tour, offers a first opportunity to reassert himself before the onslaught of PGA Tour events and the pressure that promises to looming in early April, when he will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at the Masters Tournament.
The question for McIlroy is whether his quest to rebalance his life was necessary for his game, or whether, despite last year’s chaos and draining, his starring role in golf’s uproar helped fuel a more precise. And the reality for McIlroy and his rivals is that the uproar has become an integral part of professional golf.
On Tuesday alone, the PGA Tour asked a US court to let it step up its legal pressure campaign against LIV and the wealth fund, and here in Dubai, Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters winner who joined LIV the year last, approached McIlroy for a salute.
According to McIlroy’s account, he was busy with his training schedule and “didn’t feel the need to recognize” Reed.
In an interview, however, Reed offered a different explanation: “I knew it was because of LIV.” Although the ferocity of the following seconds was the subject of much gossip and discussion on social media, one of Reed’s LIV tees ended up in the vicinity of McIlroy.
McIlroy said he “didn’t see a tee coming my way at all, but apparently that’s what happened.” Reed, who lamented some news articles which he said described him as “backing down and throwing one at him,” suggested what happened was closer to a movie or a movie. launch, a mischievous effort to ease months of tension.
Despite the finer details of the kerfuffle, the strategy didn’t work. After a reporter asked McIlroy on Wednesday if he could ever consider a mended relationship with Reed, the official tour transcript did not invent an oral response from McIlroy, who remained silent. Instead, he offered a bracketed, exquisitely accurate comment of the moment: “Disbelieving facial expression.” (Earlier, McIlroy criticized Reed’s reputation for litigation, saying, “If the tables were turned and I threw that T-shirt at him, I would expect a lawsuit.”)
McIlroy then retired to the driving range, which on Wednesday was the repeated target of downpours that closed schools in a neighboring emirate. The forecast also calls for rain on Thursday and Friday.
That could be good news for McIlroy, who thrived in weather conditions that leaned toward the miserable and won all four of his major titles after suboptimal conditions.
Of course he’s not going to win a major in Dubai. But he said on Wednesday that a feeling of “a bit of unfinished business” lingered after his 2022 performance in the Desert Classic.
Fixing it, he knows, would send a message far beyond any Emirati practice.