All signs point to strong showing by McIlroy in Dubai
Tiger Woods also in action at the Desert Classic
Rory McIlroy on the 10th hole during the pro-am event prior to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on the Majlis Course in Dubai. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods will take sharply contrasting form into their head-to-head in the 25th staging of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic this week.
McIlroy finished joint second in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago, losing out by a single stroke to Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal after suffering a two-shot penalty in the third round.
That was one of the Northern Irishman’s five top-10 finishes in his last seven starts, a run which includes his dramatic victory over Masters champion Adam Scott in the Australian Open.
The 24-year-old can also boast four consecutive top-10 finishes in Dubai since claiming his maiden European Tour title in 2009 at Emirates Golf Club, where he will partner Woods and defending champion Stephen Gallacher in the first two rounds.
Woods began his 2014 campaign in the Farmers Insurance Open last week, but carded a third round of 79 at Torrey Pines – a venue where he has won eight times – to miss the unusual 54-hole cut.
The world number one is seeking a hat-trick of victories in Dubai but is rated second favourite behind McIlroy, who has been working hard on his short game for 10 days since Abu Dhabi.
“I’m playing well,” the world number six said. “I played well in Abu Dhabi and feel like my game has come on a little bit since then as well, with the wedge play and stuff. I feel good driving the ball well, which is a big key for me, so hopefully I can keep that up.
“It’s always good to get a win early on in the season, and it would be nice to be up there at least and challenging for the trophy on Sunday.”
Speaking at a pre-tournament press conference, McIlroy acknowledged the impact of his win in Australia at the start of December, his sole victory in 2013 after five wins worldwide in 2012, including a second Major title in the US PGA Championship.
“It was really important,” he added. “I felt like I had been playing well up until that point. I was showing some good form, played well in China, played well in Korea, played well in Dubai, but just didn’t quite get the win.
“I didn’t think a win was necessary because I felt like my game was coming back into the shape that I wanted it to, but getting the win down there was very nice, very satisfying. It was great to end the year with a win.
“For the last few months of 2013, it was all about just trying to build some momentum going into this year, and I feel like I’ve done that.”
Woods insisted his game was not in the sort of shape suggested by his 79 last week, adding: “My game certainly was nowhere near as sharp as I would have liked last week.
“I was just a fraction off, and a fraction off on a golf course set up that hard, it bit a lot of us, and unfortunately it bit me pretty hard. I think the average score was just over 73 on Saturday, and I shot 79.
“I needed to make a few changes, just a few slight adjustments, and I did that, and I had unfortunately Sunday off, so I had a chance to go home and hit a few shots. I came out here and just wanted to improve every day. Tuesday was better than Monday, and Wednesday was better than Tuesday. Hopefully tomorrow will be even better than today.”
Woods’s quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s total of 18 Major championships has been stuck on 14 since the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines, but the 38-year-old believes this year’s venues give him an excellent opportunity to land a 15th title.
“I think just being patient and putting myself there is key,” added Woods. “You’re not going to win them every year.
“I certainly look at my career, I haven’t won them all each and every year I competed as a pro, but I’ve got to keep putting myself there, and if I can keep doing that, I’ll start clicking a few here and there. The key is to just keep putting myself there.
“These four venues are four venues that I’ve played well at. Three I’ve won at – Augusta, Royal Liverpool and Valhalla – and one I’m trending in the right way (Pinehurst). I’m looking forward to these Major championships and this season in general.”