Rory McIlory will play his first competitive round of golf in more than three months when he tees it up at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship on Thursday – but the world number 11 is adamant a first win in nearly 16 months isn’t far away.
The Northern Irishman hasn’t tasted victory since the Tour Championship in September 2016 and hasn’t won a major since the 2014 PGA Championship.
He curtailed his 2017 season in October following the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, citing a rib injury, although it transpired days ago that the issue was a more serious heart irregularity.
It followed him suffering a viral infection in China 18 months ago, but the four-time major winner insisted “it’s nothing” as he looks to get back on track following the longest break of his career.
“I’d love to win again. I don’t think there’s any better feeling than winning a golf tournament. But I don’t feel like it’s that far away,” McIlroy, 28, said at his press conference ahead of this weekend’s 13th Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
“I’ve practiced and I’ve played. Obviously not competitively in a proper tournament, but I’ve shot some really good scores over the past few weeks, it’s different doing that to being out here on Thursday and really having a card in your hand.
“But from everything that I’ve seen in practice and playing over the past few weeks, there’s no reason to think that it’s not that far away.”
Asked if he needed to return to winning ways in order to boost his chances of winning the Masters in April, McIlroy added: “I don’t need to but I’d love to. It would be ideal if I were to win one of these next eight events, it would be great for my confidence going into Augusta.
“But even if that doesn’t happen, hopefully I can take a lot of confidence from things that I’ve seen in my game, maybe even if the results don’t quite come my way, but I’d love to.
“It’s been, what is it, 14, 15, 16 months since I won, so I’d love to get back in the winner’s circle as soon as possible.”
Playing down the seriousness of his heart issue, McIlroy added: “I went for a checkup in April, just a regular ECG, they put you on the treadmill and your heartbeat has two big spikes, and then a tiny little spike at the end, and that little spike at the end was the other way, inverted.
“It’s nothing and once they ramped my heart rate up to 150 beats per minute, that started to go the right way again, so it was totally fine.
“They just said I have a bit of a thickening in the wall, not really a big deal, just something you have to keep on top of, and that was really it.”
But while he may play it down, McIlroy’s workload over the years has surely had an effect on both his mental and physical health.
Despite not yet 30, McIlory has been on tour a decade, having turned professional in 2007. And after enjoying a 104-day break including a road trip through Italy in a 1950s convertible Mercedes with wife Erica Stoll, Wee Mac insists he’s now ready for the next 10 years.
“Honestly, I was excited to be done,” he said of cutting his season short after the Alfred Dunhill.
“I could have shut it down after the PGA Championship very easily and taken the rest of the year off, but I didn’t. I played six events after that and played okay. I had a chance to win one of them.
“But I was just excited to take that time off and get myself just sort of reset. After that 3 1/2 months of a reset, I’m very happy to be back.
“I felt like I needed it physically and mentally. I’ve been out here for 10 years and it just felt like it was a little bit of a sabbatical. I’ve been out here for 10 years, get ready for the next 10, and I will feel like I’ve done that which is really nice.”
The Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship is becoming something of a mystical tournament for golfers, Martin Kaymer need only look at the reigning champion to see what a win here can do to reboot a career.
Tommy Fleetwood was ranked 100th in the world coming into Abu Dhabi 12 months ago. It sparked his stupendous rise to 18th by year’s end as he became Race to Dubai champion – having admitted genuine fear of being unable to hit the ball off a tee at his lowest ebb at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in 2016.
Prior to his 30th birthday, Kaymer had celebrated more in a few years than most golfers can dream of achieving in whole careers.
Two majors, three Ryder Cup appearances under his belt – including a starring role in the Miracle at Medinah in 2012 – and achieving No1 golfer in the world status; it appeared the Dusseldorf native was destined for greatness.
But he has fallen into something of a rut in recent years – without a win since his second major was procured at Pinehurst in 2014.
But if there ever was a tournament the German may feel could pull him out of the abyss, it could well be in mystical Abu Dhabi – where he was won three times before.
To put that into context, Kaymer has won a quarter of the tournaments that have been held since the UAE capital first staged the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship in 2006.
Kaymer has worked harder than ever during the winter break in a bid to snap out of his current malaise. He feels one result could kick-start his revival, and where better than in a city which holds a “special” place in his heart.
“I’ve been very successful on that golf course. Not only with the wins but also the tournaments I haven’t won, I’ve played very well,” Kaymer told Sport360 of the course at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he was also runner-up alongside Louis Oosthuizen to England’s Paul Casey in 2009 (a win which might have set up a hat-trick, having won back to back in 2010 and 2011).
“I’ve been very close a few times and one not so very good experience in 2015 when I was leading by so many shots, but that was a good experience too and taught me so much in so many ways.
“Positives and negatives. I had my very first win here so there will always be something a bit special to me about it.
“You need a little bit of a push. A confirmation that you’ve done the right thing. We shouldn’t be so results orientated, we should be more patient, but in the end we play a sport that is about results.
“No-one cares about how much you work or how much time you put in, it’s about results and wins, and we all need that. It would be nice if that could happen.”
There were signs of a revival towards the end of 2017. The 33-year-old finished in a tie for 16th at the Masters, his best placing at Augusta.
He admits he’s been diligently working over the last six months and didn’t allow himself much time off over Christmas, practicing in America before coming over to the UAE last week.
“It was working last winter too,” added Kaymer, who felt he was making progress before a left shoulder injury ruled him out of the PGA Championship – which he won in 2010 – and the Bridgestone Invitational in August.
“I was practicing a lot and doing the right things which is why I was playing good golf between January and May, then the injury happened and that was frustrating.
“I thought I was prepared and the results were showing. I played very well in America, finished top five in Florida then had a good finish at the Masters and was very well prepared for the summer.
“You have to accept it and that’s why I did the same thing this winter because I know how I felt at the beginning of last year. So hopefully I can feel the same and get similar results early. You never know when it will pay off, it could be soon or later but I know I have done the right thing.”
Kaymer, who spent eight weeks at No1 in 2011 – aged just 26 (at the time he was the second youngest to reach the coveted top spot after Tiger Woods) – admits he was surprised to win his first major.
The PGA title at Whistling Straits arrived at age 25, in 2010, the US Open four years later, but he admitted success was achieved due to being a solid golfer who rarely made mistakes.
“I was a bit surprised how many (majors) I’ve won in the first six or seven years on tour,” he said.
“I was playing very solid golf and didn’t make too many mistakes. I was just a very good, solid player. The first major was a big surprise because it was only my third or fourth year on tour and it’s a bit early to be winning your first major. The second one was good, I just played great golf.
“The first two or three years I was surprised, yeah, I didn’t think I was going to be so advanced.”
From such lofty highs to crushing lows, Kaymer is not the first to golfer to fall from grace. Now the world No75, he was as low as 83rd last November – his lowest position since October 2008.
He is not frustrated, because he knows what he must do to retain his status among the golfing elite.
“It could quickly snowball, going from not winning tournaments to missing cuts and sliding down the rankings, but only if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong,” added the Arizona resident.
“If you know what to change, it’s not frustrating, it’s just a matter of how much do you want it. I know what I need to do fortunately and I’ve really put the work in over the last six months as I wanted to, I was motivated.
“It is frustrating on one hand but on the other you know the reasons. Not spending as much time practicing and focused as I had been before. It was OK but you get to a point where you’re not happy with the way you play because you don’t put in the work.
“That’s frustrating and you’re the only one who can change it. That’s why I was practicing a bit more in the autumn and winter. I’m injury free and can focus on playing good golf again, and I know how much satisfaction it gives me when I win tournaments.”
Having only celebrated his birthday at the end of last month, Kaymer is aware he still has an awful lot of years left in the game too.
“I do have a lot of years left. But I don’t play for top 10s. If I can’t win, I don’t want to say the tournament is over for me, but you do focus a bit on the next week.
“Winning tournaments it what gives you the ultimate satisfaction. Hopefully I will have a few more chances in the future, and for the big events.
“Because I know it all comes down to WGC (World Golf Championships) events, Ryder Cups and majors, that’s what it is. No-one really cares what you have won in 1993 in any European country, it’s not on the radar too much.”
Something very much on Kaymer’s radar later this year though will be the Ryder Cup, and a fifth-straight appearance.
He is desperate to be in good friend Thomas Bjorn’s squad of 12 at Le Golf National in France in September but will need to improve on his current placing of 19th in the Ryder Cup points race or rely on being one of Bjorn’s four captain’s picks.
“I’ve always been part of the Ryder Cup,” said Kaymer.
“In 2008 I was too young, I’d been on tour one year, but ever since 2010 I’ve been there so I would hate to miss out on that team, with it being in Europe and having Thomas Bjorn as captain. Thomas and me know each other well, we are good friends, and I would love to be on his team.
“You could argue both ways (for my chances right now), very good or very poor. It’s so early. The way I’ve performed the last two years is no indication of me making the team. But the way I’ve prepared and what I feel like I could do this year, I think I have a decent chance.”
Asked what he believes his good friend will bring to the captain’s role, Kaymer added: “I think he brings calmness into it. I think he’ll be a very organised person and be prepared very well for many scenarios. For players I don’t think there’ll be many surprises during the week.
“I think he has belief in the players, he’s not the type of player that tells you what to do because he knows there’s a reason why you’re there.
“He doesn’t need to play the captain in terms of saying to every player what they have to do. He trusts everyone and I think he will try to be the leader and manager for each individual, and that’s the right way to be a captain. But that’s just my guess, we will see.”
Kaymer has performed admirably for Europe. In addition to holing that 18ft putt on the 18th green six years ago in Illinois to beat Steve Stricker and help the visitors pull of one of if not the greatest comebacks in Ryder Cup history, he has a decent record.
He was the third highest scoring European (2.5 points) on debut in 2010, and has never finished pointless.
He believes reigning Abu Dhabi champion Fleetwood and DP World Tour Championship winner Jon Rahm are certainties to make the squad and is exited to get the chance to work with them, should he make the squad.
“I think they’re already in the team, so it’s a great opportunity for them to prove themselves at the highest level and one of the most difficult situations,” he said.
“I’ve played with all types of players. I’m not sure if I can play with Tommy or Rahm, I don’t know them that well, you need to play some practice rounds to get that spark, and playing with rookies is always different to if you play with guys who’ve been there before.
“I’m not saying it’s good or bad. It just depends so much on the individual, how much they’re into it or how passionate they are.
“Thomas Pieters was a rookie two years ago but got four points. Some others are a bit more shy and hesitant because it’s all new so you need to treat every player in a different way.”
In a sport where the individual is king, Kaymer ranks the Ryder Cup as incomparable to anything else in the game.
“It brings out something in you that you don’t know you have until you get there,” he added.
“It’s different. You play each other every week and all of a sudden you play together for one goal and it’s inspiring. You feel stronger, bigger, a better golfer.
“It has more power if you have 11 world class golfers behind you, with the support of the captains. It gives you more of a boost to play better golf. You can’t copy it in any other tournament because you’re on your own. It’s a team event and we don’t play team events.
“We are not a team sport. It’s all about ourselves. In the end we do play the Ryder Cup too for ourselves but you have more strength behind you, that’s how I always felt.”
A year ago Tommy Fleetwood came into the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship as the 100th ranked player in the competition.
He was 188th in the world the previous September. But he won, somehow, and it set in motion one of the most stunning individual resurrections in recent golf memory that sees him now sitting in 18th – an upwards jolt of 170 places in just 16 months.
Fleetwood, who turns 27 on Friday, ended the year as Race to Dubai champion after holding off Justin Rose’s surge to claim the overall title at Jumeirah Golf Estates in November.
And back in the Emirates this week ahead of his title defence in Abu Dhabi, he was presented with the Seve Ballesteros Award at his press conference at the Westin hotel yesterday – bestowed upon the European Tour’s best player, as voted by their peers.
“It’s actually made me the most emotional out of all of them,” a surprised Fleetwood said after European Tour CEO Keith Pelley and tournament director David Howell gatecrashed his press conference to present him with the award.
“There’s still so many guys that when I come out I was looking up to and you watch people on the range and you try to learn from them,” added Fleetwood, a popular man on the tour, who is looking good to make Thomas Bjorn’s Ryder Cup team after his sublime 2017.
“I’ve made a lot of friends and for people to vote for me as the Player of the Year, it’s something else. It’s different to anything I’ve achieved before. It’s very flattering, very humbling.”
After winning the opening event of 2017 here, Fleetwood quickly added to his momentum. He was second at the WGC – Mexico Championship in March and at the Shenzhen International in April.
He won July’s HNA Open de France and even though he endured an anxious wait as first he but then Rose capitulated on the final day on Earth course at the DP World Tour Championship, he eventually celebrated winning the Race to Dubai crown which he had dominated for much of the season.
After that he finished sixth at the UBS Hong Kong Open and tied for third at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. And he admits he is starting his 2018 in a “very different place to last year”.
“I won last year and it kind of came, it did come out of nowhere,” said Fleetwood, who reached his lowest ebb at May 2016’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth – where he felt he wasn’t able to strike a ball off the tee.
“I had worked really hard sort of half of the year before, and then by the time I got to this event, the goals for the year were, I just wanted to win a tournament again and pretty much anything other than that was a bonus.
“It took us all a little bit by surprise, and it was a massive accumulation of so much hard work and coming back and getting my game back together.
“It was just so many great memories from that week, and it clearly started a great run for me throughout the year. I think I owe a lot to the tournament and the way I played.”
Due to his stunning comeback year, the Southport native – whose 2017 was further enhanced by marrying wife Clare and becoming a father for the first time – admits expectations have been raised, ever so slightly, this year.
“I’m in a much different place world ranking-wise, so then the goals and making improvements become more difficult. You have to put a lot more extra work in to get smaller gains but I’m very lucky with the people I have around me.
“Generally, the goals are, I want more of the same. It’s easy to pick out tournaments that you want to win, and it’s easy to say, ‘oh I want to win a major, I want to compete in the majors and I want to make the Ryder Cup team, but you have to remember to just keep progressing.
“I know how easy it is to go off-track. I know what it takes to stay on the right track and I know I’m surrounded by people that are going to keep me going that way.”