Dubai marks step on McIlroy’s road to US Masters

Defence of Desert Classic title offers Ulsterman chance to return to winning ways

Step by step, tournament by tournament, all roads will eventually lead Rory McIlroy to Augusta National in April where he will get another chance to complete the career Grand Slam.

For now, though, it's all about staying in the groove and, as it happens, his defence of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at The Emirate Golf Club offers the perfect opportunity to return to winning ways.

Of McIlroy’s 12 career wins on the PGA European Tour, no fewer than four of them have come in Dubai: twice in the Desert Classic, and twice in the Tour Championship.

His form in the past six Desert Classics provides an indication of how that famous strut materialises on fairways created through the sand: 1st-6th-10th-5th-9th-1st, from his first win in 2009 to his second triumph a year ago.


Although he can't overtake Jordan Spieth at the top of the world rankings, McIlroy has a chance to creep closer to the American in that particular battle for global dominance.

Yet, it is fair to say, much of what McIlroy – and, indeed, Spieth – is about these days is about gearing up for the Masters, the first Major of the season.

As recently as Sunday, when playing in the one-day AD Invitational in Abu Dhabi, a tournament that raised funds for the Red Crescent charity, McIlroy reaffirmed that his goal to claim a green jacket at Augusta edged ahead of chasing gold at the Olympics on his wishlist.


Speaking to UAE media outlets at the Invitational, which was won by amateur Bryson DeChambeau, McIlroy said: “I would definitely wait another four years for the Olympics if I could get a real shot at the Masters.”

Such prioritisation is understandable, especially so given the imminence of Augusta and also that all four Majors this year will be completed before Rio.

McIlroy – who won the US Open (2011), the US PGA twice (2012 and 2014) and the British Open (2014) – only needs the Masters to complete the missing link in his Grand Slam quest. Only five players (Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods) have managed the feat in their careers.

Having finished tied-third in the Abu Dhabi championship a fortnight ago, McIlroy – who spent the intervening week practising in Dubai – is seeking to successively defend a title on the European Tour for the first time.

He will move his attention to the PGA Tour after this tournament, beginning his stateside build-up to the Masters with a first appearance in the Northern Trust Open at the Riviera club in Los Angeles in two weeks time.

McIlroy heads a five-strong Irish contingent in Dubai, where he is joined by Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Michael Hoey. This will be McDowell's first appearance on the European Tour this season as he seeks to improve his Ryder Cup qualifying bid. McDowell is currently 16th on the world points list in his attempt to make Clarke's team for Hazeltine.

One of McIlroy's chief challengers in the desert is likely to be Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who skipped last week's Qatar Masters – won by Branden Grace – in order to rest his knee following recent surgery.

Ranked sixth in the world, Stenson was a winner of the 2007 in a sequence that saw him finish inside the top-eight for five successive years.

Inside out

Stenson spent 10 years living in Dubai earlier in his career: “There are not too many courses I know better than the Majlis course. I feel like I know this course inside out, and had the success in 2007 and another couple of high finishes. So, it’s a really an enjoyable week for me in Dubai,” said the Swede.

Meanwhile, on the Asian Tour, Corkman Niall Turner – following up on his top-25 finish in Singapore on the circuit’s seasonal opener last week – will be the lone Irish man in the field at this week’s Myanmar Open.

On the Australian PGA circuit, Cormac Sharvin is set to make his pro debut on a special tournament invitation to the Victorian Open.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times