Rory McIlroy is both “rejuvenated” and “refocused”. He’s also equipped with a game that is no longer “one-dimensional” as he bids to mark his return from a three-month break with victory in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
After a third-round 65 for a 16-under-par total, the 28-year-old is just one off the lead, held by Belgian Thomas Pieters and Englishman Ross Fisher, in the $3 million event and feeling happy about his week’s work so far. No wonder.
His first bogey of the event came after 51 holes. It was a good one in the end, holing a 12-foot putt from just off the green at the short 15th after leaving his second shot in a bunker.
The four-time major winner chipped in two holes later for his seventh birdie of the day before signing off with another one after being delighted how he shaped a 2-iron with his approach to find the green.
After finishing second in this event four times, McIlroy is determined to finally go one better. Winning for the first time in 16 months would also be some way to return after shutting down his 2017 campaign early to get himself properly prepared for this year.
“I’m not here to make a statement,” he insisted afterwards. “I’m here to try to win golf tournaments and people can think what they want. I know the work I’ve put in and I know that I’m as prepared as I ever have been to play, not just this year but for many years ahead.
“I’m rejuvenated and sort of refocused a little bit and I know what I want to do. I think over the past three days I’ve shown my intent.”
This is the first of eight tournaments he has planned in the build up to this year’s Masters. That will mark his fourth attempt to become just the sixth player to complete golf’s career Grand Slam. Winning first time out in 2018 would be a huge confidence boost.
“It’s so nice,” he added of his position heading into the final day. “If someone had said to me at the start of the week, you can go off in the last couple of groups and have a chance going into Sunday, I’d have said, ‘I’d love to do that’. It’s just good to get back into the mix and get back into the competitive environment.”
Every aspect of McIlroy’s game has benefitted from the work he was able to put in during his self-enforced break. As that left-to-right 2-iron from 230 yards at the last showed, he feels comfortable again shaping shots. This round also included a nice knock-down with 8-iron.
“I’m working on not to be so one-dimensional,” he said. “It’s not that I didn’t have the ability, but I had gotten out of the habit and I had gotten out of doing that and practising that. But I’ve been doing stuff like that over the past few months.”
Games on Trackman, the golf simulator that just about every top golfer now owns, have helped him work on his distance control. “I’ve been doing them since probably September,” he said. “I worked a little bit on my wedges at Close House for the British Masters and that helped that week. I just continued on from there.
“I have a 60 to 80 game and I have a wedge test game, which is like 25 shots. I’ve got one for short to mid-iron, which is like 150 to 200, and a mid to long-iron from 200 to 250. It’s random distances for 25 shots and you’re just trying to play about and trying to land it a certain distance.
“It’s been a productive few months in that regard. It makes practice fun as well. You’re not just there hitting balls. There’s a purpose to it and you know walking off the range whether you’ve had a really good practise session or not, and that builds your confidence, too.”
Pieters signed for a 67 to retain his position at the top of the leaderboard, where he was joined by Fisher after the Englishman closed with a birdie for a 65. Not only is McIlroy breathing down the duo’s neck but also defending champion Tommy Fleetwood.
Bogey-free for the second time this week in signing for a 67, last year’s Race to Dubai winner is just two behind, as is compatriot Matt Fitzpatrick after he stormed up the leaderboard on the back of a blistering nine-under-par 63.
World No 1 Dustin Johnson birdied two of the last three holes to sit on 12-under, giving him an outside chance to go one better than 12 months ago, with two-time winner Paul Casey also five behind the leaders on his return to the European Tour.