Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship: Rory McIlroy claims to be 'smarter' having learned from previous distractions

The Northern Irishman says Caroline Wozniacki 'is the right girl for me' following their recent engagement

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The Independent Online

Though they are handsomely rewarded for doing so, standing on a stage waving a golf club in some kind of dance simulation in deference to local customs represents a considerable challenge for professional golfers. It requires them to set aside all sense of self in order to execute the moves while keeping a straight face and then speak gushingly about the experience afterwards.

It is called PR, of course, and Rory McIlroy is well versed in the practice. At least this year in Abu Dhabi the subsequent smiles were in keeping with a state of mind much removed from the turmoil with which he began 2013 at the same venue. A missed cut here on his unveiling as Nike’s new golfing mannequin, presaged a season of personal and professional turbulence from which he has only just recovered.

A first victory in more than a year was recorded in Australia last month, followed by his proposal to tennis siren Caroline Wozniacki on New Year's Eve under Sydney Harbour Bridge. So it was in a state of raging contentment that McIlroy pitched up at the HSBC Golf Championship for his first engagement of 2014.

"I don't think there can be a bigger decision you have to make than asking someone to marry you," he said. "If anything, it will only help to have that stability, knowing everything in that regard in my life is set. It's a big step in anyone's life to make that decision, and obviously it’s not one that you take lightly. If you get engaged, you plan on spending the rest of your life with that person. I feel like she's definitely the right girl for me."

In committing to a life partner at just 24, McIlroy conforms to the Gary Player school of conservative golfing wisdom, which places the love of a good woman at the heart of professional success. Certainly, McIlroy can do without the emotional undertow attached to poor form, management strife and romantic uncertainty that knocked him off the top of the world rankings back into seventh place in 2013.

"I am not going to sit here and say that all the stuff going on off the course wasn't a distraction and that it didn't affect me," he said. "Of course it did. You’re thinking of other things when you really shouldn't have to. But I've learnt from it and I’m smarter because of it.

"It's great that I've gone through it at this stage in my career and not 15 years down the line. So off the golf course, I'm in a great place and I am happy. I'm feeling good about where I am mentally.

"I feel good with everything that's going on off the golf course, and it's hopefully shaping up to be a good year." McIlroy is grouped with touring American totem Phil Mickelson and last year's winner, Jamie Donaldson, in the first round. It is to be hoped Mickelson is more convincing on the course than he was off it. His packaged PR speak about learning new cultures does not bear repeating here. Suffice to say he will have to do a lot better to trouble the scorers in a deep field.

In the absence of Justin Rose, who has been sidelined by a shoulder injury, the British gaze falls heavily on Luke Donald who, like McIlroy, is seeking to put behind him a slump of dizzying proportions during which he has plummeted from second to 19th in the world rankings.

A new coach has given him fresh impetus, though he would not have enjoyed the 12-hour delay in the polar vortex of North America en route to the desert.

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