Still holding onto number one, Rory McIlroy looks to conjure the magic of last year

Tee-throwing incident with Patrick Reed made for a bizzare tournament prelude into Dubai

Since Rory McIlroy arrived in the United Arab Emirates over the weekend, he has seen his world number one ranking preserved by virtue of another man’s missed putt in California, been drawn into a driving-range drama over whether he ignored a defector to LIV Golf and had a tee thrown his way in retaliation, and mentioned how he was served a subpoena on Christmas Eve.

But on Thursday, after one of the more bizarre tournament preludes in recent memory, McIlroy played a competitive round for the first time in 2023 and gave golf a glimpse at whether he has the form that last year rekindled some of the fever that followed him earlier in his career. The Northern Irishman was two-under-par after 15 holes before darkness halted play after a rain-hit start to the tournament, with a short birdie to follow on 16 in the morning which would move him into the top 10.

“I’ve been obviously practising at home and practising well, but it’s always first tournament of the year, getting back on to the golf course, just trying to get comfortable again with shots on the course and visuals and all that sort of stuff,” McIlroy said Wednesday in Dubai, where he had a debacle last January but a good-enough showing in November to win the season points crown for the DP World Tour, as the European Tour is currently marketed.

In some respects, the scrutiny has never been greater. When McIlroy last won a major championship, he was 25 years old and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund was not underwriting a splashy rival to the world’s top men’s golf tours. He is now 33, with a frustrating record of close calls but newfound stature as arguably the golf establishment’s pre-eminent spokesperson against LIV.


He has spent much of the past year publicly answering questions about the Saudi-backed circuit – in response to one on Wednesday, for instance, he effectively called Greg Norman, LIV’s CEO, weak – and privately crafting a response to it. He played exceptional golf, nevertheless, winning the European Tour points title, capturing the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup and finishing no worse than eighth place in 2022′s majors. The price, he suggested Wednesday, was exhaustion and a decision to “sort of distance myself from the game of golf” for a spell.

After he played an exhibition event with Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods on December 10th, he stashed his clubs and only picked them up again this year. Holding to his preference to start a calendar year’s competitions in the Middle East, he exercised his right to skip the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. He has held the number one ranking, which he reclaimed in October, anyway, but Scottie Scheffler nearly took it back on Sunday – and Jon Rahm is threatening, having won two tournaments this year, both of them at 27 under par.

“We all know Jon is one of the best players in the world, whether there’s a 1 beside his name or a 2 beside his name, it doesn’t really matter,” McIlroy said of Rahm on Wednesday.

That may be true. But for all of the flaws of the Official World Golf Ranking system, including the formula that undervalues Rahm’s play in recent months, there is still power in the mystique of the top spot, and value in its marketing.

The Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club, where McIlroy has won twice and made his first European Tour cut, offers an early opportunity to reassert himself before the PGA Tour’s onslaught of events and the pressure that promises to loom in early April, when he will try to complete the career Grand Slam at the Masters Tournament.

The question for McIlroy is whether his quest to rebalance his life was necessary for his game, or whether, despite the chaos and drain of last year, his starring role in golf’s tumult helped fuel sharper play. And the reality for McIlroy and his rivals, is that tumult is a fixture of professional golf for now. – New York Times