McIlroy heads strong Irish assault on Dubai

Dubai’s Desert Classic and the superb Emirates course will always hold a special place in Rory McIlroy’s heart.

As a 19-year-old in 2009, McIlroy captured his first professional crown at the venue and this week returns seeking another title.

McIlroy finished 19 under par three years ago, leading from start to finish to become the seventh youngest winner on the European Tour. It seems there’s something of a mutual love affair between McIlroy and Dubai. Rory is global ambassador for the Dubai resort company Jumeirah Estates, who are also one of his major sponsors, and has been a frequent visitor to the region, including a spell last week for practice and relaxation.

This is his seventh appearance in the Desert Classic and he completed 72 holes for the first time on the European Tour as a 17-year-old amateur in 2007, eventually finishing in a share of 52nd on three under par.

This week is an ideal outing in McIlroy’s bid to usurp Luke Donald as world number one. The Holywood man lies second in the rankings after a string of consistent performances highlighted by his eight shot triumph in the US Open, further wins in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Masters along with three other top four finishes.

“Rory is a familiar face to Dubai fans, having competed in this event a number of times, both as an amateur and professional”, said Mohamed Juma Baumaim, vice chairman and CEO of Dubai Golf. “He is an inspiration to young sportsmen even from beyond his own sport. I don’t believe in comparing sportsmen but Rory’s youthful charm and charisma has certainly created its own marketable brand.”

McIlroy admitted: “It’s always nice to get back to a golf course where I’ve enjoyed success. Obviously, the memories of 2009 are still very strong but I feel as if I’m a more complete player now. I definitely swing it better. I’m able to shape the ball both ways and, physically, I’ve gotten stronger. I definitely feel like I’m headed in the right direction.”

Joining McIlroy are Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, 3rd and 4th in the world, along with champion Alvaro Quiros and Scotland’s 1999 Open champion Paul Lawrie, an impressive winner in Qatar on Sunday. A number of Americans, including Fred Couples, John Daly, Mark O’Meara and Shaun Micheel, all major champions, will be there while the other Irish in the field are Michael Hoey, Shane Lowry, Peter Lawrie, Damien McGrane and Gareth Maybin.

Meanwhile, Pádraig Harrington tries once again to get his career back on track at the AT & T pro-am at Pebble Beach on Thursday.

He has partnered his friend JP McManus at the famous Californian venue for several years, with considerable success initially but with little joy in recent times.

Stuck on 93rd in the world rankings and a long way off qualifying for the all-important WGC Accenture Match Play and WGC Cadillac championships this month, the prospect of seeing Harrington drop outside the world’s top hundred looms large.

He is now the 5th ranked Irishman after McIlroy (2), Graeme McDowell (11), Darren Clarke (55) and Michael Hoey (90).

Tiger Woods, fresh from an encouraging third in Abu Dhabi, will be the focus of most attention over the course where he won the 2000 US Open by 15 shots. Given that the honours list in a tournament launched back in 1937 as the Bob Hope pro-am includes legends like Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Phil Mickelson and Woods, it is interesting to note that the top two American world ranked players, Steve Stricker (5) and Webb Simpson (6) haven’t entered. Dustin Johnson (10) is the highest ranked player in the field for the $6.4m (€4.89m) event.

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