It says much about his state of mind that the issues most troubling Rory McIlroy relate to golfing jurisdiction rather than court concerns.
McIlroy arrived at his first tournament of 2015 in Abu Dhabi yesterday seeking to right the wrongs that have twice cost him victory in the HSBC Golf Championship. The legal dispute with a former management company that continues in a Dublin court next month is filed in the mental in-tray some way below understanding the golfing rule book.
McIlroy lost by a shot last year at the HSBC to Pablo Larrazabal after a two-stroke penalty for taking an improper drop off a path. A stupid rule, he said. Two years earlier, a similar penalty for illegally removing sand from his line cost him victory by a stroke to Robert Rock.
“I’ve definitely got unfinished business here because two of the last three years I’ve been on the wrong side of the rule book and it’s cost me,” McIlroy said yesterday. “So I’ve played the fewest shots on both occasions and not won.
“My goal this week is not to have any penalty shots and see where that leaves me. It’s a course where I really feel comfortable and where I know I can win. This my eighth year here and I feel like I’ve been patient enough. It would a perfect start to the year.”
In his ability to subordinate and compartmentalise a problem that might cost him millions, McIlroy revealed the rock-hard temperament behind his success. Instead of rehearsing arguments ahead of his appearance in court, the Ulsterman was doing what he always does at this time of year, scribbling his targets for the season on the back of a boarding card.
Only McIlroy could win back-to-back majors and consider the year a failure. “I wanted to have six worldwide wins and I only won four [last year], although I did have only one major on the list,” he said. “Every year I fly here and do a week or 10 days of preparation in Dubai before this tournament, and I write my goals down on the back of my boarding pass, put it in my wallet and memorise them, then I don’t look at them until the end of the year.
“So in my wallet is a boarding pass with my goals for this year. I don’t really want to share them with anyone else as they are just my little goals, and I’ll take that boarding pass out at the end of the year and see how well I’ve done.”
McIlroy is about to embark on what might be a historic year. He is seeking to complete the career grand slam of all four majors at the Masters in April. Should he become only the sixth golfer in history to pull that off, he heads to Chambers Bay for the US Open in June knowing victory will take him into exalted territory, emulating Tiger Woods as the only golfer of the modern era to hold all four majors simultaneously. Heady stuff.
To prepare for the challenge McIlroy stepped away from the game over the festive period, laying down his clubs for a month before resuming practice in Dubai last week. Last year was the most successful of his career, and followed his worst. The lessons of 2013, when by his own admission he allowed the first rush of career success to corrupt priorities and disrupt his approach to the game, were absorbed.
He returns in 2015 by some distance the best golfer in the world, his status underpinned by a wide margin at the top of the rankings. He is thinking only of victory in the Gulf, where he also contests the Dubai Desert Classic in a fortnight as a prelude to his court date in Dublin.
“I know they have made a few changes, but it’s a golf course I’ve always felt comfortable on, one that has suited me, and I’ve played well here in the past. I think this is my eighth year in a row starting the season off here, so I’m pretty familiar with the place and looking forward to another strong start to the season.
“Over the Christmas period I had my first chance to really look back and reflect on the year and even watch a few of the highlights of some of the tournaments that I won, so it was nice to reflect. I feel 2014 has really set me up for another great year.
“I feel like I’m coming into this year with a nice little bit of momentum, and my game is feeling good. It was nice to have that little break, but it’s time to look forward now towards this season, and try and accomplish the goals that I set for myself.”
McIlroy is scheduled to debut on the PGA Tour at the end of next month at the Honda Classic in Florida, where it all started to go wrong for him two years ago when he walked off the course half way through his second round citing toothache.
He then goes back-to-back at the opening World Golf Championship of the year, the WGC-Cadillac in Miami, before heading back up state to Orlando for the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, a three-tournament stretch in four weeks by which time the court case will be a thing of the past, for good or bad.
If his form holds up, McIlroy will not contest the Houston Open the week before the Masters as originally scheduled. “It really depends how I feel,” he said. “If I feel I need more golf, I’ll play. If not, I’ll probably take it off. I’ve got a good routine and mental strategy going into majors now, where I try not to let too much affect me. I go into my own little world for those couple of weeks.”
Before all that McIlroy begins his year in Abu Dhabi tomorrow alongside Matteo Manassero and the man who stalked him through his triumphs at the Open and the US PGA, Rickie Fowler. McIlroy is one of eight major champions contesting an HSBC event celebrating its 10th year on the European Tour calendar.
US Open champion Martin Kaymer partners previous incumbent Justin Rose and defending champion Larrazabal, who takes the polar opposite approach to the year to McIlroy, but then the Spaniard is starting from an entirely different point in the golfing firmament. “I’m not a player that before the season likes to go for goals,” he said. “I just want to be in the top 50 in the world, I want to play in the World Golf Championships and I want to play in the majors.”
McIlroy wants so much more than that.
MCILROY IN NUMBERS
4 - The Irishman won four events last year – including the Open and US PGA
64 - Number of weeks spent by McIlroy ranked as No 1 in the world
8 - A tie for eighth, last year, remains his best showing at the MastersReuse content