Colin Montgomerie has praised Rory McIlroy’s impressive comeback form and believes the Northern Irishman can go on to seal the Masters title in April if he improves his putting.
The 28-year-old finished in a tie for third in Abu Dhabi last week after nearly four months out of the game due to injury.
A fantastic build-up to Augusta waits for McIlroy – which will include another seven tournaments – continuing in Dubai where he is currently tied second after round one.
The four-time major winner posted a stunning opening round 65 – showing flashes of class as he bids to win his third title at Emirates Golf Club.
“Rory is roaring back after 100 days away and a superb tournament last week. Who’s to say he won’t be in Dubai as well? I mean, this is good for the Masters coming up,” Montgomerie said to Sport360.
“I know how much it means to him to win all four Majors. If Rory holes out the way Jordan Spieth or Jan Rahm does right now, he will win the Masters.
“He hits the ball better than anyone through the green, it’s just a matter of getting it in the hole.”
In a Ryder Cup year, McIlroy’s early season form bodes well for a European team aiming to win the cup back from the American’s after suffering a convincing defeat two years ago at Hazeltine.
Tiger Woods marked his return to PGA Tour action after a 12-month absence with a level-par 72 at the Farmers Insurance Open.
The 14-time major winner hit the opening round’s halfway point one over par but recovered that shot on the back nine in a steady comeback.
Woods endured a frustrating start, suffering a bogey on the opening hole at Torrey Pines after missing a tricky putt to save par.
He dropped another shot at the par-four fifth but birdied the next hole and picked up another two gains either side of a bogey after the turn.
The 42-year-old closed his round holding a share of 83rd place, seven shots adrift of clubhouse leader Tony Finau.
Summing up round one, he told the PGA Tour website it was “fun to compete again” but admitted he was “probably a little bit rusty”.
After nearly making an ace the par-3 16th, he said: “It was just a full six-iron. I just had to throw it up in the air as high as I could. It felt good, it looked good and then we were just listening for some noise.”
Asked what adjustments he would need to make for round two, he added: “I’ve got to hit my irons a little better than I did today.
“I didn’t hit them very close, didn’t give myself a lot of looks. It’s hard to make a lot of birdies when you’re not giving yourself any looks and I didn’t do that today.
“So tomorrow hopefully I’ll drive better and hit irons a lot closer and we’ve got the better of the two greens tomorrow so we’ll see what happens.”
Woods has won eight times at Torrey Pines, including his last major in the 2008 US Open, but missed the cut in the Farmers Insurance Open this time last year.
He withdrew from the Dubai Desert Classic the following week and remained sidelined for the rest of 2017 as he recovered from spinal fusion surgery.
Woods secured a tie for ninth place in December’s 18-man Hero World Challenge, and has been rated 22/1 to land his first tour victory since 2013.
A year ago in Dubai, Paige Spiranac reached a career and personal nadir, visibly reduced to tears as she discussed the heart-wrenching depression which had enveloped her since being tormented by online bullies.
It had been brought on by missing the cut on her Omega Dubai Ladies Desert Classic debut a year earlier, in December 2015.
Spiranac posted a 77-79 in her two opening rounds to finish 12 over par on the Majlis course at Emirates Golf Club, leading her to utter the famous phrase: “I think a bar of soap could have played better”.
As she spoke out about the cyber bullying she faced on social media platforms following her professional debut in a press conference ahead of her return to Dubai in 2016, it all became too much for the American, who broke down addressing reporters.
She fared even worse on her second showing here, a 13 over par seeing her miss the cut again as she finished in a tie for 102nd.
One silver lining for the youngster, however, is that she’s come through the other side. At just 24, Spiranac doesn’t even know if playing on the Ladies PGA Tour features prominently in her future.
But she’s excited about the alternative paths that lie ahead of her in 2018.
“This year has been such a great one for me in so many ways. I really wanted to focus on being an ambassador for the game of golf as well as my charity work fighting against cyberbullying, which I’ve found have been two of the most fulfilling areas of work for me,” said the 24-year-old Colorado native.
“It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally learned that you can be successful in unconventional ways, and I’ve been so happy now that I’m spending the majority of my time working on initiatives that will positively impact others.
“As I’m moving through my career, I’m finding that my goals are shifting. After my first full year on tour working towards playing on the LPGA, I realised that while I loved golf, I didn’t love competing and the lifestyle of being on the road.
“For 2018 I want to continue to focus on being an ambassador for golf and anti-bullying, and seeing what other ways I might be able to make a positive impact in one way or another.”
When pressed to name her future ambitions in terms of golf, considering she’s so young, Spiranac revealed stepping away entirely is an option. “Honestly, I don’t really know. Right now I’m just so grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been given that I’m trying to enjoy living in the moment as much as possible.
“Also, after having seen how much my career has changed over the past two years, it’s hard to know exactly what I want to do down the road.”
Spiranac is perhaps more famous for her following on her social media accounts than her golf – and she is currently ranked a lowly 1,192nd in the world.
She doesn’t even own a biography on the LPGA or Ladies European Tour websites at the moment. She was invited to last month’s Dubai Ladies Desert Classic as a guest but did not enter as a player.
She is back in Dubai this week and was the official starter for the men’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic on Thursday.
And despite all the bad memories Dubai must invoke, Spiranac admits she’s thrilled to be back in the Emirates.
“Dubai and the whole team behind the Omega Dubai Classics have earned a special place in my heart after my experiences there the past two years,” insists the San Diego University graduate.
“I’m so honored to be invited back again as the official starter. There are still so many things I want to do around the city.”
A year ago she competed alongside Cheyenne Woods, cousin to Tiger, on this course. And even though she performed poorly, she is an admirer of the Majlis.
“I would like to rate it low on my list because I played so poorly, but I can’t because it is just such an amazing course,” she said.
“Not only is the layout fun and challenging but the conditions have always been perfect, the staff friendly and welcoming, and you can’t beat the backdrop. Even through some bad golf, I still enjoyed every second playing the course.”
Even though the attacks Spiranac suffered on social media following her professional debut in the UAE two years ago were particularly savage, she revealed she has actually been bullied from a young age.
And whereas she’s not sure what the future holds in terms of golf, Spiranac is adamant she won’t let the trolls and keyboard warriors win.
“There’s not a week that goes by where I don’t consider quitting one platform or another,” she said.
“And I think every golfer has considered quitting golf at some point. But then I remember that’s what the bullies and haters want you to do – they want to force you to stop being you and to quit pursuing your dreams.
“Plus, at the end of the day, I really do love playing golf, and I love interacting with all of the amazing people on the internet, so at least for now I have no plans on going anywhere.
“When it comes to an athlete’s overall career, social media is such an amazing tool for speaking your truth and connecting with fans. But as a competitor, social media can be a huge distraction, especially at the elite level of any sport when often mental focus is the differentiator between winning and losing.
“As an athlete it’s so important to find a balance and set boundaries with yourself on how much time you spend on social media, and what types of content you’re consuming, or else it’s easy to get pushed past your limits.”
And as much trauma as she’s experienced, especially online and in the public eye, during her fledgling career, Spiranac is determined to hold her head high and fight for others who have or are experiencing similar suffering.
Even though she’s found it difficult talking about the abuse, she feels compelled to speak out with teenage suicide rates rising.
“I’ve been bullied my entire life, even before I started playing professionally, so I really empathise with others who have also been bullied,” she added.
“I just got to a point where I felt like I had to be part of the solution. It’s horrible that so many people, especially kids, are not just suffering, but suffering to the point of hurting themselves. If there’s anything I can do to improve someone’s life, I’m going to do it.
“I feel like I’m more myself now on social media than I ever have been. I used to be a little afraid to speak out on issues that were important to me, but now I see how crucial it is to use your platform to affect change.
“Even if I get hateful negative comments or lose followers, it’s worth it because I know I’m doing good in the world.”