The Northern Irishman didn’t play in any of the three tournaments at the Inverness venue, having dropped the Scottish Open from his schedule since its last staging at Loch Lomond in 2010.
It has been known since last September, though, that he’d be joining the likes of defending champion Phil Mickelson when the Aberdeen Asset Management-sponsored event is held in the Granite City for the first time in July.
And, while Mickelson, a big Castle Stuart fan, gave it a glowing endorsement by hinting he’d probably head there from Aberdeen for a game during the week of his title defence, McIlroy pointed to the event being staged on a “traditional links” as the reason for his appearance at Balgownie.
“I don’t think you should look at the Scottish Open as a preparation week because it’s a great event in its own right and I’m sure Castle Stuart is a very good golf course,” he said in the build-up to this week’s HSBC Championship in Abu Dhabi.
“But my decision to play in it this year was definitely down to the event being taken to a traditional links. If you want to get some good, similar-style shots to the one you need to play in the Open Championship, then it is good to be going to a traditional links, so I think it was a really good decision that they made with the Scottish Open this year.”
While Mickelson is also looking forward to paying his first visit to Royal Aberdeen, he wouldn’t have minded if the event had enjoyed a longer stay at Castle Stuart after joining both Darren Clarke and Ernie Els in becoming Open champions the week after playing there.
“Everything I’ve heard about Royal Aberdeen – that it’s one of the greatest links experiences you could have in the sense that it’s a very challenging and demanding test of golf and a great place to play prior to a British Open – is positive,” said the world No 5, who is also playing this week in the UAE.
“[But] Castle Stuart to me is one of the best modern-day golf course designs that I’ve ever seen in that the golf course is playable under any conditions. The wind can come at any different angle or any strength and the golf course is playable.
“I think it was a very well thought-out course. I like spending time there and, knowing that Royal Aberdeen is about 50 miles away from Castle Stuart, I’ll probably try to play a round at Castle Stuart during the Scottish Open. But I don’t anticipate getting down to Gleneagles that week to see it before the Ryder Cup.”
That event is firmly in McIlroy’s sights and, though he hopes to qualify automatically, the world No 7 joked that he’s trying to keep European captain Paul McGinley sweet just in case he needs a wild card.
“Ryder Cup year is always an exciting year,” he said. “The two matches that I’ve been part of (both winning appearances at Celtic Manor in 2010 and Medinah in 2012) have been the two most enjoyable weeks I’ve ever had on the golf course.
“I’m really looking forward to hopefully being part of the team again and trying to win a third one in a row. I need to make the team first and a good start to the season will hopefully get that wrapped up. But, just in case I don’t, I’ve been trying to sweeten McGinley up here and there.”
While Mickelson enjoyed a sweet season last year, when he particularly enjoyed claiming his first Claret Jug at Muirfield, the 43-year-old is hoping a new driver can make 2014 even better.
“Last year I played some of my best golf and had some huge improvements – but I did most of it without a driver,” said Mickelson, who has his sights set on completing the career Grand Slam by winning a first US Open at Pinehurst in June.
“I now have one that lowers my spin rate just like my 3-wood and I’m driving it both longer and straighter. It’s a whole different weapon in my arsenal now and, if I drive the ball like I have been in practice in the off-season, then the 2014 season could be the best year of my career.”