His game has been largely perfect, he looks almost like the player of old, but Rory McIlory admits a first win in 16 months – and at a venue where he’s been oh so close, so many times – would build confidence hugely for the rest of 2018.
The Northern Irishman is certainly well placed to make a winning return from a three-month injury lay-off following a seven under par 65 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship Saturday – placing him third, a shot behind joint leaders Thomas Pieters and Ross Fisher.
The four-time major winner has had a number of near misses on previous appearances in the UAE capital – he finished runner-up in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015, as well as coming third in 2016 – and is keen to finally lift the trophy in his first competitive start since October.
“It would mean a lot to win on tour again,” admitted McIlroy, 28.
“I’ve had a lot of close calls here, I think about six top threes or something like that. I’ve never won my first start back out either.
“It would mean a lot. It’s felt like a while since I’ve won and just to give myself these chances; I gave myself a chance at the end of the year at Close House and wasn’t able to do it. I’m excited to get back on the horse and give myself another chance tomorrow.”
The four-time major winner had gone 50 holes without making a bogey before his run finally ended at 15 – it was the world number 11’s longest bogey-free run on the European Tour.
And the game plan for the final day is to keep doing what he’s been doing.
“Same as the last three days,” added McIlroy.
“Just go out and try and shoot the best score I possibly can. I felt really comfortable, really relaxed out there. I haven’t been looking at leaderboards too much, just been trying to play my game, and it’s going pretty well so far, so I’ll try and do the same thing.”
After 15, McIlroy chipped in for birdie two holes later at 17 and a 65 left him well placed to make his return to action a winning one, since ending his 2017 in October due to a niggling rib injury, although it also transpired that a slight heart irregularity was also discovered.
And although he is desperate to win to both stop the rot both in the larger sense and in Abu Dhabi, he is looking at the bigger picture.
“All in all it was another great round and another really good confidence builder, not just for this week but for the rest of the season, as well,” said McIlroy, who last won at the TOUR Championship in Atlanta in September, 2016.
“I’m really pleased. I said all week, I felt like this is where my game was in practise, but it’s always different trying to go from the range on to the golf course, and even in practise rounds, I felt like I was playing well.
“But it’s still different whenever you get a card in your hand and you’re in competitive play.
“But to see how I’ve played over the past three days and how comfortable I’ve been out there hitting certain shots and scoring and getting up-and-down, and just really getting my golf head back on. I’ve been really pleased with that part of it.”
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