Rory McIlroy comes bounding down the 18th fairway at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, flashes a wink here and there, and looking like that bustling, irreplaceable titan we’re so used to seeing come Major Sundays.
The former World No.1 may not have won a major in nearly four years, but after a three-month sabbatical from the game due to a rib injury, he cuts a confident and rejuvenated figure as he gears up for his first tournament since October 8.
With three top-3 finishes in the UAE capital since 2014, expectations are high for McIlroy as he bids to start his year on a positive note and win his maiden Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship crown.
With all the talk about Tiger Woods’ comeback, the 28-year-old is making a mini-comeback of his own and needs to re-establish himself among the game’s elite – slipping down to 11th in the world rankings since his time out of the game.
During his 104 day break from the greens, the Northern Irishman underwent a period of self-analysis, range practice and physical training – with much of it completed in Dubai – where he packed on 2kgs of lean muscle and altered parts of his short game.
In his press conference on Tuesday, McIlroy paid reference to the fact that the break could set him up for the next 10 years at the summit of the sport.
Competing in over 25 tournaments during the calendar year is certain to wear any sports star down, and this was perhaps the mental break he needed to rediscover his passion for golf and bite to win trophies.
Despite not even yet being 30, he looks to have a spring in his step again and has already targeted competing in 30 tournaments in 2018, which would be a record in his 11-year professional career to date.
From a technical perspective, his decision to opt for the TaylorMade M4 instead of the Callaway Epic Driver looks to have paid off – and has him rediscovering the sort of distance achieved at the Scottish Open back in 2014 when he hit a staggering 436-yard tee shot.
High expectations are always going to fall on marquee sports stars, and as he steps out on the first tee alongside Dustin Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood on Thursday, the most significant question will be how quickly it takes him to return to the top.
In some respects, this event is the start of a seminal year for McIlroy as he targets the Masters – the one title that has eluded him from achieving a coveted career Grand Slam.
He may not have won a competition in nearly 16 months, but watching one of the greatest golfer’s of this decade practice this week – it looks like he has found the formula to help him challenge for major honours again over the next 12 months.
It’s too early to say he’ll be up topping the scoreboards on a weekly basis, but the break – at this point – looks to have done him the world of good.
Now, McIlroy must embark on his dream to win more titles and regain the world No.1 spot.
Know more about Sport360 Application