While 2017 was hardly an annus horribilis for Rory McIlroy, the golfer did slip to 10th in the world rankings and failed to win a trophy during the year. The 28-year-old Northern Irishman took the last three months of the year off to recover from a niggling rib injury that affected him throughout last season, but is now back and raring to go. He will take part in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship this month, where he’s hoping to start the year with a bang.
McIlroy, who married Erica Stoll in April last year, says he enjoyed taking some time away from golf getting back to fitness. “My last event was back in October and since then I’ve enjoyed some quality time with my family, which is sometimes not possible given the year round busy golfing schedule,” he tells Time Out Abu Dhabi. “Aside from vacation time, I have worked hard on my fitness since October, with a focus on strength and conditioning, and golf game in preparation for a big 2018 schedule.
“Having missed the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship last season, which was a first for me since 2008, I am very much looking forward to getting back on the course this year, as it’s a place I have played well in the past and have some great memories of.”
The tournament takes place at Abu Dhabi Golf Club between January 18 and 21 and the line-up includes big names such as Henrik Stenson, Dustin Johnson and last year’s champion Tommy Fleetwood. It’s that kind of player that McIlroy is looking forward to coming up against. “It’s a great place to start your year for a number of reasons,” he says. “HSBC do an incredible job of making it one of the strongest fields of the European Tour season and to have players like Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Justin Rose in the field, underlines how good the line-up is. The course is immaculate and the weather is always perfect, which makes it an enjoyable week.”
McIlroy is yet to win here in Abu Dhabi having been runner-up on no fewer than four occasions, but he’s hoping to put that right this year. He adds: “Having come really close here on more than one occasion, I will be completely focused on getting myself back into the winners’ circle – that would be a real confidence boost to start the
“Since the first time I played here in 2008, the crowds have grown year on year. It definitely gives you a lift out on the course when you receive so much support, which is one of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed starting my season in Abu Dhabi.”
As it’s the first tournament of the season, everyone wants to get off to a good start, and McIlroy is no different. “It’s really important for everyone teeing it up,” he says. “It is a long season but playing well at the start helps build your confidence and get you in your stride heading into the summer. I’ve finished second four times in this event and on three of those times, I’ve gone on to win the Race to Dubai. So setting the tone for the season is definitely important to me. Hopefully I’ll be able to get my hands on the trophy this year.”
McIlroy is no stranger to the UAE, having secured four victories in European Tour events up the road in Dubai, as well as spending time training and recuperating here. “I love coming back to Abu Dhabi because everything is first class,” he says. “From the golf course to the hotel to the people, we always get extremely well looked after during the week and you feel like you don’t have to worry about anything else but playing golf.”
McIlroy isn’t the only big-name golfer making a comeback on the course, his friend Tiger Woods is also on the tour circuit again. “I’ve been in regular contact with him over the past year and we always have a laugh,” McIlroy says. “He used to text me in the middle of the night asking if I’d want to go to the gym, which sums him up perfectly. Once you get to know him, you realise that aside from the golf and gym, he’s always reading and educating himself. Tiger is the best golfer I’ve ever seen. Having him back is great for the game of golf.”
To see if four-time Major winner McIlroy can break his Abu Dhabi duck, head over to Khalifa City next weekend.
From Dhs50. Thu Jan 18-Sun Jan 21. Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Khalifa City, www.abudhabichampionship.com (055 302 0620).