Speaking at his press conference ahead of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, where he is making a first appearance since the Dunhill Links last October, McIlroy acknowledged the current strength of US golf as the countdown gets underway to this autumn’s clash in Paris.
He said the Americans will go into that match feeling “buoyant”, having backed up a 17-11 win at Hazeltine in the last Ryder Cup by also thumping an International team 19-11 in the Presidents Cup, and having instilled a “cohesion” in their ranks that was missing when they suffered a heavy defeat at Gleneagles in 2014.
However, McIlroy is confident that Thomas Bjorn’s team will be a match for the visitors at Le Golf National and is determined to seal his place in that line up by making a strong start to the new season following a “sabbatical” that has left him feeling re-energised, both physically and mentally.
“The Americans are very strong and I think for the first time in a long time, they have real cohesion,” said the four-time major winner, who is making his return in an event that also includes world No 1 Dustin Johnson and Olympic champion Justin Rose. “All the younger guys - Jordan [Spieth], JT [Justin Thomas], Brooks [Koepka], DJ [Johnson], Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger - all get on really, really well. There’s a real core of young players there that will be around for a long time.
“But last time at Hazeltine the course was set up with big wide fairways, no rough and the pins were in the middle of the greens. It wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play. I think Paris will be a different kettle of fish. I think we’ll have a great team, so I’m confident.
“The Americans have been very buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. Even when Europe was winning six out of eight matches, they were are all closer than that suggested. It always comes down to a few key moments and it will be no different in Paris. It definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”
One of the highlights for McIlroy during a self-enforced three-month break aimed at giving himself the opportunity to overcome a rib problem that plagued him last season and also get ready for the 2018 campaign was driving through Italy with his wife, Erika, in a 1950s Mercedes Convertible.
It wasn’t from sitting behind a wheel, though, that he is looking absolutely ripped for his return to the competitive fold, starting with this week’s $3 million event then next week’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic, a tournament he’s won twice.
“I’ve actually put on two kilos since last October,” said McIlroy, smiling, in reply to being asked if he’d trimmed down since his last outing. “Obviously that’s two good kilos. I’ve lost a bit of fat and put on a bit of muscle. I’ve been in the gym training hard and also taking the diet a little more seriously. I’ve started working with a dietician, trying to be a little more diligent on that side.”
McIlroy, who has slipped to world No 11 during his absence, plans to play eight events between now at The Masters in early April, when he will be trying for the fourth time to become just the sixth player to complete golf’s career Grand Slam.
“I don’t need to but I’d love to,” he replied to being asked if he felt he needed a win before then to leave him feeling confident about his chances this time around at Augusta National. “It would be ideal if I were to win one of these next eight events and hopefully not just one. It’s been 16 months since I won, so I’d love to get back in the winner’s circle as soon as possible.
“It would be great for my confidence going into Augusta. But, even if that doesn’t happen, hopefully I can take a lot of confidence from things that I’ve seen in my game.”
He’s certainly been encouraged by what he’s seen in practice since getting back to work after not picking up a club for four weeks following the Dunhill Links.
“I could have shut it down after the PGA Championship last year and very easily have taken the rest of the year off,” he admitted. “I didn’t and played six events after that and had a chance to win one of them (the British Masters) but I was excited to then take time off and get myself reset.
“I felt I needed that physically and mentally. I’ve been out here for ten years and it felt like I needed to take a bit of a sabbatical to get ready for the next ten years. In the second half of last season, I wasn’t in a great place mentally. I couldn’t hit many balls and you almost feel guilty that you’re there because you haven’t done the work.
“Now i’m excited to be back at a golf tournament. I’m looking forward to getting out there and seeing how I perform. This is a place I’ve done well before and a golf course I know well. It’s a comfortable place to come back and make a fresh start.
“I think the next two weeks will be a big learning curve to see where I am. I’m trying to compete and trying to win, but I think there will definitely be things I’ll walk away from the two events and I’ll have things to work and maybe think aboyt going into my stretch in the States.
“I can’t really answer what I want to walk away with, but I think it will be quite revealing the next two weeks to see where I am with at with my game.”