McIlroy looking for a positive start to his 2018 campaign

Irishman in action in Abu Dhabi in the first of eight tournaments prior to the US Masters

Rory McIlroy plays the 18th hole  during a practice round ahead of Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club in the United Arab Emirates. Photograph: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy plays the 18th hole during a practice round ahead of Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club in the United Arab Emirates. Photograph: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

 

A year on from when it all went wrong, withdrawing prior to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship due to a rib injury that would plague him and have repercussions for the rest of the season, Rory McIlroy will hope his return to the desert for the latest edition of the tournament signals something of a new beginning.

Nobody could accuse McIlroy – one of three Irish players in the field, along with Paul Dunne and Graeme McDowell – of easing his way back into competitive action, as this week’s event features no fewer than nine players from the top-20 on the official world rankings. Among them is Dustin Johnson, the world number one.

Indeed, Johnson – already a winner this season, running away with the Sentry Tournament of Champions on the PGA Tour just a fortnight ago – is one of those with an eye on the Northern Irishman.

“Everyone will be looking forward to seeing Rory back in action,” conceded Johnson, who was runner-up to Tommy Fleetwood in last year’s staging of the tournament.

The tale of McIlroy’s 12 months since undergoing MRI scans in Dubai exactly a year ago is told by his place in the world rankings; he has fallen from second this time last year to a current position of 11th, due to a 2017 season badly disrupted by the rib injury first sustained in the South African Open last January.

The injury resurfaced at the Players in May and, late in the season, led to him taking an almost four-month long break from competition in order to allow it to heal properly. He hasn’t played competitively since the Alfred Dunhill Links last October.

In what is effectively a statement of his intent, and a confidence in his own fitness, McIlroy has mapped out a heavy early-season campaign that will see him play eight times prior to the US Masters at Augusta: his schedule sees him play the Gulf Swing, taking in Abu Dhabi and next week’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic, before heading stateside to play the AT&T Pebble Beach pro-am, the Genesis Open, the Honda Classic, the Valspar championship, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC-Dell Championship.

Competitive action

First off, though, is the Abu Dhabi Championship and, although he has yet to win the tournament, McIlroy has finished outside the top-three only three times in nine previous appearances.

Resuming competitive action on a course which he knows and plays well on makes a great deal of sense, and the strength of the field – with Johnson joined by Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Paul Casey, Tyrell Hatton, Matt Kuchar, Alex Noren and defending champion Fleetwood from the world’s top-20 – will ensure no easy examination.

The strength of the field is actually reflected in the fact that there are more world ranking points on offer in Abu Dhabi than in the Career Builders Championship on the PGA Tour. A win for McIlroy on his return to duty would actually move him up to eighth in the rankings.

Johnson’s presence, of course, adds hugely to the rankings points. And the American’s approach is one of continually looking for improvement.

“The best thing about golf is that you can always find room to improve. I don’t struggle with motivation on course. I feel very lucky to be a professional golfer and I enjoy the competition and the lifestyle. I don’t set too many goals for my career, but every week I compete my goal is to try and take the trophy home with me,” said Johnson.

Séamus Power is the lone Irish player involved in the Career Builders tournament at La Quinta, California, with Shane Lowry – who has moved to his Florida base for the first half of the season – set to make his seasonal debut at Torrey Pines next week.

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