HE MAY have been “made to look silly” at Muirfield last summer and had a pretty dismal year all round. But, just 15 days into 2014 and the smile is already back on Rory McIlroy’s face.
He’s still to hit a golf shot in anger. That will come tomorrow in the opening round of the £1.6 million HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship, the first leg of the European Tour’s Middle East Swing.
But, newly-engaged to former women’s tennis world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki, no longer worrying about legal wranglings off the course and feeling as though his game is getting close to where it was when he was on top of the world, McIlroy has finally got his mojo back. Yesterday’s press conference in the plush Westin Hotel that sits beside the giant eagle-shaped Abu Dhabi Golf Club clubhouse was his first since popping the question to Wozniacki after the clock struck midnight on Hogmanay in Australia.
“We were out on a boat in Sydney Harbour for New Year’s Eve, with fireworks, just in front of the opera house and stuff. I guess there was a little bit of romance involved,” reported McIlroy of the big moment.
“And yes, she was surprised. I mean, I had an idea that it might have been what she wanted or it was something she would say ‘yes’ to. I hoped she would say ‘yes’. It all worked out. It was a great way to end 2013 – and a great way to start 2014.”
While his bashful side stopped him from telling a “funny story” from the event, opting to “keep that between us”, McIlroy is confident the decision to become engaged will be good for his career, even though it had been rumoured at one stage last year that the pair had separated.
“If anything, it will only help to have that stability and know that everything in that regard in my life is set,” insisted the 24-year-old. “It’s a big step in anybody’s life to make that decision and obviously is not one that you take lightly. If you get engaged, you plan on spending the rest of your life with that person so it’s a big decision. But I feel like she is definitely the right girl for me.”
Twelve months ago, McIlroy was also the centre of attention when he arrived in the richest of the emirates, his move to the Nike stable being marked by a glitzy ceremony at a hotel in Abu Dhabi.The fireworks to mark that event, though, quickly turned into a damp squib.
It wasn’t until late in the year that he started to look comfortable with his new clubs and, despite signing off last year with a victory in the Australian Open, he is heading into the new season having slipped to world No 7.
“I have learned from it and I’m smarter because of it,” McIlroy insisted of 2013, a year in which he was embroiled in a legal wrangle over his decision to change management company. “It is great that I have gone through it at this stage in my career and not 15 years down the line.”
On the equipment switch, which came on the back him finishing 2012 in imperious form, he admitted: “I think it was a big deal – a real big step in my career. But I guess I had so many things to try and think about or focus on; am I going to use this, am I going to use that, is this driver better than that one. There was a lot of instability. There was loads of stuff going on around me and that didn’t let me focus 100 per cent on what I needed to do, which was to try and play the best I could.”
Amid a series of lows, it was during his only visit to Scotland last year – for the Open Championship at Muirfield, where he missed the cut in the game’s oldest major for the first time in his career – that McIlroy hit rock bottom.
“The biggest frustration for me last year was at The Open, where I was putting into bunkers and doing all sort of stupid stuff,” said McIlroy, who described himself at the time as being “brain dead” and “unconscious” on the East Lothian coast.
“I wasn’t in control of my golf ball and especially at Muirfield, when the ground was so firm, you had to be spot on. If you were even a slight bit off, it made you look silly at times. I was a long way off, which made me look even sillier.”
Having “worked my ass off” since arriving in the UAE ten days ago to finalise his preparations for the new campaign, McIlroy has no intention of allowing himself to be made to look foolish on a golf course ever again. Whereas his schedule was pretty rigid last season, it’s “fluid” this time around. He wants to give himself more flexibility to make sure he’s ready for the majors.
“I feel like I’m starting this year on such a different sort of platform,” claimed McIlroy, who has high hopes of starting the year on a winning note, having recorded four top tens, including two seconds behind Martin Kaymer, in seven starts in this event. “Everything feels like it has fallen into place and I can just focus on my golf.
“I know that everything else away from that is in a really good place. I’m happy that I can go and try and play the golf that I know I can. Everything off the course it set and I’m in a great place. I’m happy. So there is no reason why I shouldn’t be smiling. I’m feeling good about my game. I feel good about where I am mentally. I feel good with everything that’s going on off the course. It’s hopefully shaping up to be a good year.”