Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn lauds 'dangerous' in-form Rory McIlroy

Matt Jones 29/01/2018
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Thomas Bjorn has labeled Rory McIlroy “dangerous”, with the European Ryder Cup captain admitting he’s been buoyed by the world number 11’s impressive form in the early weeks of 2018.

Much has been made of McIlroy’s much-hyped return in the UAE this month, following a three-month injury absence.

The 28-year-old Northern Irishman played at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, and looked fit, healthy and at ease with his swing having curtailed his 2017 season following the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October.

A niggling rib injury was the reason given by the 28-year-old for cutting short his campaign, although ahead of his long-awaited return in Abu Dhabi, McIlroy also revealed he had also been dealing with a minor heart irregularity.

Neither that or an extended break from the game seem to have left him rusty as the four-time major winner finished tied third in the capital, before missing out on a third Dubai title by one stroke as he had to settle for second place at Emirates Golf Club behind China’s Li Haotong.

Thomas Bjorn (r) has been impressed by Rory McIlroy this month

Thomas Bjorn (r) has been impressed by Rory McIlroy this month

He really should have lifted that third title as he led by two shots after the 10th hole of the final round on the Majlis course, but Bjorn is hugely encouraged by the early performances of a man who will surely be a key figure in his Ryder Cup squad in September.

“The most encouraging thing I think is that Rory’s in a place where you feel he wants to play a lot of golf. And in that position, he’s a very dangerous as a golfer,” Bjorn told Sport360 at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club in Abu Dhabi, where he was playing in the Gary Player Invitational.

“He hasn’t missed a gym session, he looks great health wise and great technically. He’s enjoying being on the golf course.”

McIlroy hasn’t won a title since the 2016 Tour Championship 16 months ago, while he hasn’t tasted major success since 2014’s PGA Championship.

His win-less 2017 was the first year since turning professional in 2009 he failed to taste victory, but Bjorn believes the County Down native has rediscovered his form and fire.

“I’m sure he will go away from the Middle East with the situations he got himself in, that he maybe wanted a little more,” added the Dane, 46.

“But in general it was two fantastic weeks and it shows a lot about his talent and character that he comes out after such a long layoff and is ready to play with the best in the world.

“It’s hard not to predict great things for him this year, especially because there’s a smile on his face, a willingness to play golf and wanting to be there. When Rory McIlroy’s in a good place with everything, he’s a very difficult competitor to deal with.

“I think we make a lot out of Rory and we talk a lot about him. He’s a wonderful golfer and he obviously struggled with his injuries last year, and always feeling like he was probably a little bit behind when he got to tournaments.

“He showed up last week, I had a good chat with him at the DP World Tour Championship, I saw him there and I saw him last week; and to see him fit and healthy and desperate to play golf, that’s how you want to see him.”

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INTERVIEW: Rory McIlroy raring to go in 2018 after much-needed break

Tom Biggs 16/12/2017
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McIlroy is set to star at next year's Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

Ask any top sportsman what it is like watching from the sidelines and the response will nearly always be the same: frustrating, unsatisfying and quite frankly, monotonous.

But a period of time away can be beneficial and for Rory McIlroy, having spent three months off the golf circuit towards the end of his 10th year as a professional, it has been a chance to ‘recalibrate and reset’.

A nagging back injury meant the four-time major winner had to shut 2017 down from October, costing him a spot at Dubai’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship – a short-term investment that he believes will ensure he stays at the top for years to come.

“I struggled with an injury pretty much all year last year and I just needed to take a little bit of time out to rehab and let that heal to make sure that I’m 100 per cent for next year,” he told Sport360°.

“It’s actually been nice to get away from tournament golf. I’ve been a professional for ten years, so just to take a few months off and recalibrate everything and reset to get ready for the next few years was nice.

“I allowed myself that little bit of a break to feel rejuvenated and ready to go again next year. I’m feeling good and I’m really excited. I haven’t been this excited about a golf season for a while, so I’m really looking forward to it.”

That excitement goes a long way to explaining why McIlroy will play in eight tournaments before he goes in search of his maiden Masters victory in early April at Augusta – more than he has ever done in his career up to this point.

McIlroy will be looking to add to his four major victories.

“I feel like I haven’t played that much over the past 18 months,” said McIlroy. “I’ve been pretty limited with my schedule the last couple of years.

“That has been good because it has kept me fresh for certain parts of the year, but at the same time – I just want to play.

“I’m just excited to get back out on the course. This is the time for me, as it’s not as if I have any other commitments or anything else going on in my life. I just want to get out there, play golf tournaments and get back in the thick of things.”

Time away from the course appears to have done McIlroy the world of good in more ways than one, as he’s been able to take stock and assess the small details that may go a long way to helping him add to those four majors.

“I guess when you’re not injured you take your health for granted a little bit and when you’re struggling with your body, all you want is to be healthy and do whatever you can,” he added.

“I’ve taken that side of things a little more seriously, by really watching what I’m doing in terms of diet and making sure that I’m warming up properly and doing everything I need to get myself 100 per cent healthy and in shape.

“I’ve just been a little more diligent with that side of things, but in terms of the golf, I don’t feel like I need to do anything differently. I feel like I’ve done a good bit of work in the last few weeks on my swing and on my game and I feel like I’m ready to go next year.”

McIlroy’s second event of 2018 will see him head to Dubai to compete in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, and the Dubai resident has certainly made the course at Emirates Golf Club feel like home, having won in 2009 and 2015.

“I’ve won there twice and I love the golf course at the Emirates. I played in the tournament a couple of times as an amateur as well, and it is a great place to start the year,” McIlroy added.

“Dubai is perfect at the time of year that we’re playing. They are able to assemble a really good field, so it’s great competition at the start of the year to see where your game matches up with the other guys.”

Good friends: Horan and McIlroy.

Before he looks to make it a hat-trick of victories, McIlroy will team up with his close friend and superstar music artist Niall Horan for the Wednesday ProAm. The two have struck up somewhat of an unlikely friendship in recent years, culminating in plenty of time on the golf course together.

“We probably haven’t got out to play as much as we’d like recently. He has just finished a very successful first tour and releasing his album and that’s obviously done really, really well,” said McIlroy of Horan’s recent successes.

“I’m in London next week so we’re going to try and catch up and play a round of golf – if the weather permits – so we’ll see how that goes. It’s a bit nicer to play in Dubai, you don’t really have to worry about the weather.

“But we’re going to try and catch up and play. Maybe I’ll give him a few pointers so he can work on it over Christmas and New Year so he’s ready to go in Dubai.”

McIlroy and Horan are offering one lucky fan the chance to join their team for the ProAm on Wednesday January 24. The winner will also enjoy a seven-night stay in Dubai, including flights, plus two tickets to each day of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. For more information on how to enter head to www.omegadubaidesertclassic.com/win.

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Joy of Golf: Star attraction Rory just can't win

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Hitched: McIlroy's marriage to Erica Stoll was kept under wraps.

It’s just the story of Rory McIlroy’s life so far – as far as controversies go, he seems to be the man with the Midas touch. Even his marriage last Friday to Erica Stoll is dividing opinion.

The couple tied the knot in a lavish, and what was an extremely hush-hush, ceremony held at the magnificent Ashford Castle in the small Irish town of Cong.

Reportedly, a bevy of A-list celebrities attended the wedding, with performances from Stevie Wonder and Coldplay, and including his golfing friends like Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington, apart from well-known stars like Niall Horan and Ed Sheeran.

The couple wanted the marriage to be a private affair, and McIlroy went the distance to make sure it was held that way. It is said that the four-time major champion had the place on virtual lock-down – to the extent that he even hired anti-drone technology – apart from the presence of a massive police cordon and request to the attending guests not to use their cellphones for anything more than receiving and making phone calls.

That did not go down well with some of the Irish press, and there was a particular column on the popular independent.ie website that was critical of McIlroy for not allowing his Irish fans to get a glimpse of the happiest day in the life of their superstar.

It then made a ridiculous comparison to Brian O’Driscoll, who spent almost an hour with the local media providing comments and photo opportunity on his big day.

The comment piece has been dissed by McIlroy’s peers, the serious sport media and by most of his fans, although there have been odd voice of support from some netizens, who believe that those who lead such public life as McIlroy, should be prepared for some prying.

Really, we need to give McIlroy a break. His life on the golf course is an open book, but what he does at a personal level away from it, should be left to him to decide whether it should be made public or not.

Having said that, being a journalist, I can understand the frustration that the local media would have. McIlroy’s wedding would have been the biggest thing to have happened to Cong in months. There would be some editors breathing down on their golf and social reporters to get some details, some images and write some stories.

What would have been the best case scenario was McIlroy himself releasing a couple of pictures on his own social media channels. That probably would have satisfied everybody.

DECISION’S STILL MUDDLED

In the aftermath of what happened to Lexi Thompson at the ANA Inspiration, golf’s governing bodies Royal & Ancient and the United States Golf Association have come up with a decision to limit the use of video evidence.

On Tuesday, the new Decision of the Rules of Golf provided tournament officials guidelines on when not to resort to high-definition footage.

The two areas where it works is when the video evidence reveals something that cannot be discerned by the naked eye, and it will honour players who have made a reasonable judgement.

So, if a drop is not entirely correct by the law, but doesn’t give player undue advantage, will not result in penalty for the player. And in the case of a slight movement of the ball, or like what happened last year with Anna Nordqvist where she touched a few grains of sand on her backswing and was visible only on high-def pictures, again, there would be no penalty.

And yet, you could not get rid of the feeling that there should have been more clarity on the issue.

For one, armchair anoraks can still call in and complain. So, in all probability, there will still be more trials for players in the future.

Also, in Thompson’s case, she would have still got the four-shot penalty unless the officials felt that she did not move her ball much while replacing it. The new decision does not take away the two-shot penalty for submitting a wrong scorecard, something that Thompson would have been unaware of on the day the incident took place.

GOOD WEEK – BROOKS KOEPKA

Ask any professional golfer – it’s never a good thing finishing second. But we think the Texas Open runner-up will be delighted with his finish, especially because of the way he was struggling at the start of the year. His best result until Dell Match Play was a tied 42nd, but the hugely talented American has turned things around in great style since finishing tied ninth there.

BAD WEEK – LI HAOTONG

The top-ranked Chinese star shot identical rounds of 75 and missed the cut by five shots at the Shenzhen International.

There is a lot of expectation from Haotong, especially when he is playing in mainland China. It was disappointing also because he is the defending champion at Volvo China Open this week and the form does not augur well for the tournament.

WHAT’S IN THE BAG – KEVIN CHAPPELL

Driver: TaylorMade 2016 M1 (10.5 degrees)

3-wood: TaylorMade 2017 M1 (15 degrees)

5-wood: TaylorMade 2017 M1 (18 degrees)

Irons: Nike Pro Combo (4-6); Nike MMProto (7-9)

Wedges: Nike Engage Square Sole (48 degrees), PXG 0311T Milled (52-, 56- and 60-degrees)

Putter: Scotty Cameron T5MB

Ball: Nike RZN Tour Platinum

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