Rory McIlroy, ahead of last week’s HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship, his first event of 2022, was asked how “success defines”, now, his 15th year as a professional, and the introspective question was asked, almost always from McIlroy, an introspective answer. He said he would be playing well and playing consistently. At this point, McIlroy defined the value of “putting yourself in a position to win.”
“The more time you put yourself in — you golf well enough to be up front in the ninth line on Sunday — that’s when you really find out what you’re made of and whether you can replay and hit your shots when you’re under pressure,” he said. You need that.”
“And I think this has been a successful year for me. If I put myself in this situation so many times, and I feel comfortable and feel like I can hit those shots under pressure, I know I’m doing the right things.”
With all that in mind, perhaps the best way to decipher what happened on Sunday in Dubai is:
There are still 11 months left in the year for McIlroy to get to where he wants to go.
Yes, McIlroy has positioned himself at the center of the Dubai Desert Classic Championship. He was twice late and entered the final round on Sunday at Emirates Golf Club. He was bullish with five holes to go. Then came 17, 18 and a pair of “shots under pressure”. Did he do the “right things”? Shooting a bush tee into the hole second to last, and water metal in the water at the end—when all he needed was two parisers for a playoff, or one birdie to win—suggests he was very wrong.
Let’s take a look at both the holes and the shots. At 17, 359 yards, -4 bar on the right, McIlroy hit a tee shot left and into patchwork, where he was somehow able to chip and get up and down on a par. (In particular, in the shot of the bush, the exhibition and those watching at home I heard from McIlroy What they might hear from their Sunday games: “This game can go anywhere.”) Was safe play a tee-finding tool? Too late, sure. But also consider that McIlroy, when he is, one of golf’s best drivers, has gone this route in none of the previous rounds (albeit with only three pars to display) and Victor Hovland, who, along with Richard Bland, was a tie With McIlroy in the lead, he led 17th and his Eagle earlier in the Tour.
At 18, McIlroy chose to hit 3 woodcuts from a tee at a 564-yard, par-5 dogleg left, found the fairway, then found the water running along the right side of the hole and fronts the green, after choosing to go for the green in two. From there, McIlroy recovered to give himself a look at the 15-foot playoff, but he missed. Some big questions here too. Was 3-wood the right play? A driver flirts with water, so it works. But why try to go home in two? Before we go any further, note that McIlroy hasn’t spoken to reporters, so we’ll have to wait to find out his exact reasons. But in two of the previous three rounds, he fought risky play, including during Saturday’s third round, when he was flying. (Although, in his other attempt, during the first round on Thursday, he was also wet, and in the first round he played it safe, on Friday, he was flying.) And, memorably, Colin Montgomery did So in 1996 with a driver outside the deck. And frankly, it was a heroic blow. Of course, nothing is more famous than stuffing a peg with a foot in the third shot and winning.
So where does that leave things? Looking back, this is now the second late crash in his past four events – the final round of the DP World Championships, also in Dubai, featured Sunday’s 74 and a shirt rip afterwards. This is followed by a host of other meltdowns, which, while justified to some, isn’t quite as dynamic a person as McIlroy. Of course, to paraphrase McIlroy himself, you can’t collapse into late-play situations if you weren’t there in the first place.
The year is still young.
“There are so many ebbs and flows in this game and the career is so long that it’s kind of hard to compare year to year and what you feel like and how you get there,” McIlroy said on Friday. “But I think looking at the last 12 or 14 years or whatever it was, the work is there, I played well and didn’t feel good and I played poorly when I felt really good.
“It’s just a matter of continuing to show up every day and trying to score as low as possible on the scorecard and move on.”