Rory McIlroy’s new trophy cabinet back home in Florida could need expanding sooner than he expected. He already needs to find space for the WGC-HSBC Champions trophy after winning in China last month and he’s maybe not finished yet this year when it comes to landing silverware.
After an opening eight-under-par 64 to sit one shot off the lead, held by Frenchman Mike Lorenzo-Vera, the 30-year-old is off and running in his bid to land the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai for the third time, following victories in 2012 and 2015.
McIlroy also put himself in the frame for the 2019 European Tour Shot of the Year after setting up a last-hole eagle-3 with a majestic 3-wood approach from 291 yards to five feet, having earlier carded seven birdies, including five in six holes in a brilliant burst on the front nine as he signed for his lowest score on the Greg Norman-designed course.
“Honestly, it’s possibly the best shot I’ve hit all year,” said the world No 2, who is chasing a fifth title triumph of his campaign. “I had the equivalent of 272 to the front, 291 to the pin. I carry my 3-wood off the deck about 280, so it was right on the limit but, as soon as I hit it, I knew it was perfect. It was right out of the middle.”
It rekindled memories of two equally impressive blows he produced in the final round to win the 2016 Irish Open at The K Club, denying Russell Knox after following a birdie at the 16th with an eagle at the 18th to prevail by three shots after trailing the Scot by one with three holes to play.
“It’s up there,” admitted McIlroy in reply to being asked where this one ranked in his glittering career. “I hit a similar shot – a 3-wood on the eighth hole to make eagle – the first year I played at Doral in 2009. That was one of the best fairway wood shots I’ve hit and obviously people remember the two fairway wood shots I hit into the 16th and the 18th at the Irish Open. But, just from [a] sheer quality golf shots standpoint and just having to step up and button one, it’s up there.”
It was after returning from that successful trip to China that McIlroy discovered his wife, Erica, had arranged a nice surprise for him.
“We had just moved into our new house a couple of months ago but we still had not moved everything in and the trophy cabinet hadn’t been built,” revealed the Northern Irishman. “I got back from China, walked into our sort of games room and up on the wall were all the trophies and stuff. It’s a nice reminder sometimes. All that stuff had been in storage for a year and a half, so the first time I had seen the Claret Jug and US Open trophy and all that sort of stuff. It’s cool, but it’s also a great motivator to think, ‘you know, I’m still pretty early in my career and I’ve done quite a lot but I still want to do so much more’.”
Having bounced back brilliantly from the bitter disappointment of missing the cut in this year’s Open Championship at Royal Portrush, there’s no denying McIlroy has a real spring in his step at the moment.
“I’ve achieved a few goals that I had set myself after that,” he said of the Claret Jug event on home soil. “Obviously that was a difficult period and I needed to regroup and restart almost.
“But the golf that I’ve played since Portrush has been some of the best I’ve ever played. I’m sure my stroke average is 67-something. Sometimes these experiences can be a really good thing for you and a catalyst to being a bit more motivated or learning. I’ve tried to learn from every sort of setback that I’ve had, and I feel like I’ve done a good job with that, not just this year, but all the way throughout my career.”
Despite feeling under the weather, Lorenzo-Vera equalled his lowest round of the season – it was sparked by an eagle at the par-5 second and also included four birdies to finish – to set the pace in the battle to land the biggest first prize in golf of £2.7 million. “Honestly I’m not the feeling well at all,” said 34-year-old, who has never won on the circuit. “I have no energy. I had a lung infection in South Africa and really just feel bad on top of that.”
After a 70, Austrian Bernd Wiesberger still tops the projected Race to Dubai rankings, but Spaniard Jon Rahm is lurking ominously in third spot after a 66 as he bids to be crowned as European No 1 for the first time. Tommy Fleetwood, another contender in that title battle, holed his second shot for an eagle at the first to set up a 67.
• Turkish Airlines fly daily to Dubai via Istanbul with golf clubs flying for free. Check out turkishairlines.com