Back in the swing

After an injury-disrupted season in 2015 and invigorated by his recent DP World Tour Championship win, Rory McIlroy is aiming to get back to his best for 2016, starting with the defence of his Dubai Desert Classic title in February. Michael Stoneman reports

By almost any measure, Rory McIlroy enjoyed a hugely successful 2015. The 26-year-old celebrated four tournament victories, plus a further seven top-10 finishes, and banked more than US$7m in prize money. His dramatic win in the DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates in November, meanwhile, also saw him clinch a second successive Race to Dubai title as the leading player on the European Tour.

Things haven’t been going too badly away from the fairways either, with McIlroy replacing his boyhood hero Tiger Woods as the face of the hugely popular EA Sports golf video game series in March, and his budding charitable foundation hosting the Irish Open tournament in May. 

But despite all that success, 2015 has been anything but plain sailing for the former world number one. Having started the year as the undisputed top-ranked player, the four-time Major champion now finds himself sitting in third place following the emergence of American young gun Jordan Spieth and the rise of big-hitting Australian Jason Day, who claimed three of the year’s four Major titles between them. 

McIlroy’s season, meanwhile, was disrupted by a serious ankle injury sustained while playing football with his friends in July, which prevented him from defending his Open Championship title at St Andrews and kept him out of the game for six weeks, scuppering his hopes of adding to his Major tally in 2015.

“I’m always a little disappointed when a year goes by without a Major,” admits McIlroy. “My ankle injury knocked my plans back and took away what I hoped would be a very realistic chance of a victory at St Andrews. But what’s gone is gone and golfing careers are long – the opportunities will come again to seriously challenge for many Open Championships.”

McIlroy had entered 2015 full of belief following the best run of form of his career, which had seen him win four times in 2014 – including the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and successive Major titles at the Open and US PGA Championships – to clinch the Race to Dubai crown as the year’s leading money-winner on the European Tour.

“I was really confident,” he says. “My 2014 season, especially from the summer onwards, was special. Two Majors and a WGC in quick succession, plus winning the Race to Dubai, gave me a lot of belief in my game.”

He continued that form by finishing as runner-up at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship in January before claiming a second Dubai Desert Classic title in February. His previous victory at the Emirates Golf Club in 2009 had been McIlroy’s first win as a professional and proved to be a significant moment in the then 19-year-old’s burgeoning career.

“I’d been knocking at the door a few times, but just couldn’t get over the finishing line in those earlier tournaments,” he says. “It was great to get that first win as a confidence boost. So many things started to look possible after that win, and I started to really believe that I had the potential to become a force in world golf.”

And a force he certainly became. Since that breakthrough win in 2009, McIlroy has celebrated a further 17 professional victories, including four Major titles, risen to number one in the world rankings and signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Nike. 

He had already become the third youngest player after Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus to win four Major titles and he was expected to add to his haul of golf’s most prestigious titles in 2015. But instead he had to take a back seat as Spieth, 22, and Day, 27, dominated the golfing narrative. 

“Nobody could fail to be impressed with the year both Jordan and Jason have had,” admits McIlroy. “Both with their very different styles of play, they have been winning or in the hunt in most big tournaments this year. A quick look at the stats will tell you the kind of golfers Jason and Jordan are: solid and consistent.”

The ascension of Spieth, Day and McIlroy has fans eagerly anticipating potential on-course battles between the young stars. It has also led to comparisons with the sport’s previous ’Big Three’ of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, who dominated golf in the 1960s and 1970s, winning 34 Major titles between them.

“Competition and rivalry is very healthy in all sport, golf included,” he says. “I’m happy that the world of golf is hoping to see the three of us repeat the famous three-way rivalry between Nicklaus, Palmer and Player. We’re not quite there yet but it’ll be a lot of fun and exciting golf if it happens.”

His immediate goal, though, is to regain his number-one ranking. “I still see the number-one slot as very much up for grabs,” he says. “In all honesty, I’d really enjoy the challenge of three, four or five guys all being in contention on the Sunday at any big tournament. Jordan, Jason, Rickie [Fowler], Henrik [Stenson], to name only a few, are extremely strong mentally, so it would make for very exciting viewing. And that’d be great for golf.”

While McIlroy saw his world ranking fall and was unable to add to his collection of Major titles in 2015, his hard-fought win at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai has ensured the season ends on a high note, with his impressive form also pointing to further success in the coming year.

“I couldn’t think of a better way to finish the season,” he said after his victory in November. “I’m really happy going into the Christmas break and looking forward to what’s in store for 2016.”

McIlroy is now set to enjoy a well-earned rest as he looks to recharge his batteries ahead of a huge 2016 season, which includes golf’s return to the Olympics in Rio and the biennial battle between the USA and Europe in the Ryder Cup. 

“I’m really excited at the thought of going to Rio for the Olympics next year and the chance to compete for a gold,” says McIlroy. “I never thought growing up that I’d be an Olympian, especially not for golf. The Ryder Cup follows on quickly from the Olympics, so it’s all set to be a pretty hectic summer. I will need to pace myself, along with all other golfers, to stay focused throughout the year. My targets? I’ll be hoping for a strong start to the year and hopefully carry that momentum on to the latter part of the season.”

McIlroy is expected to be back in Dubai to defend his Desert Classic title in February as he looks to make that strong start to 2016, and adding a third Dallah trophy to his collection could be the perfect way to kick-start his season and set him on the road back to the number-one spot and further Major glory.