Magnificent McIlroy must keep eyes on the prize

NOT even Pádraig Harrington, widely regarded along with Vijay Singh as the hardest worker in the game, has been able to get in some practice since the cold spell kicked in just before Christmas.

Instead, Harrington and all the others have been making do with some strenuous exercise in the gym while also taking the opportunity to spend time with family and friends. Indeed, the three-time major champion and Rory McIlroy, of whom so much is also expected in 2010, won’t be seen in competitive action again until the end of January when they compete respectively in the Los Angeles Open and the Abu Dhabi Championship.

After that, McIlroy will be aiming to become the first player to win back-to-back titles when he returns to defend the Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Club from February 1 to February 7.

Since the inception of the longest running European Tour event in the region in 1989, no golfer has successfully defended, although Ernie Els (three times) and Tiger Woods (twice) have the distinction of winning the title more than once.

McIlroy showed he possessed nerves of steel when he won the 2009 title by one shot. Watched by thousands of fans and his parents, the Holywood hero produced a great up-and-down from a greenside bunker on the closing hole to seal his first victory on the European Tour since turning professional on September 19, 2007.

Comparisons with Tiger Woods also dominated the headlines during the week with Mark O’Meara, his playing partner in the first two rounds, claiming McIlroy was a better striker of the ball at 19 than Woods had been.

Since his maiden win in Dubai, McIlroy, currently ranked ninth in the world, has been steadily climbing the ladder of success. In the 2009 World Golf Championships he was a quarter-finalist in the Accenture Match Play, tied 20th at the CA Championship and was fourth at the HSBC Champions.

McIlroy also played well in the Majors and was tied third at the US PGA, tied 10th at the US Open, tied 20th at the Masters and tied 47th at The Open Championship after opening with a tidy 69.

He again demonstrated his liking for golf in the gulf at the Dubai World Championship, where he finished third behind Lee Westwood and Ross McGowan to claim second in The Race to Dubai behind Westwood.

“I expect a lot of myself and I put myself under the most pressure because I want to do well,” said McIlroy, taking time out over the festive period to look forward to Dubai. “I don’t really let what people say affect my game. As long as I can live up to my own expectations, I am doing okay.

“It felt great to win my first title in Dubai. Of all the places to have my maiden win, Dubai would have been my first choice. I love Dubai. My sponsors (Jumeirah) are based there and I have made many friends there.”

McIlroy, of course, is the youngest player ever to get into the top 10 in the world rankings and it will be fascinating to see how the season ahead pans out for him.

He has frequently played down the levels of expectation that are inevitably placed in him, that he is the next Tiger Woods and sure to be world number one sooner rather than later. That is a lot of pressure and whether the Holywood youngster can cope is a moot point. Certainly, he hasn’t let his admirers down so far and if he could chalk up a victory early in the new campaign, it would do his confidence and self-belief a great deal of good.

The people in Dubai certainly believe he has what it takes. Mohamed Juma Buamaim, vice chairman and chief executive of Golf In Dubai – the promoters and organisers of the Desert Classic – says: “Rory may be only 20, but his achievements to date are hugely impressive. He has the game and charisma to be golf’s next big star. Just look at his form – 14 top 10 finishes on the European Tour in 2009.”

No more than anywhere else, Dubai hasn’t escaped the ravages of the recession but where the Desert Classic is concerned, everything seems to be very much on track.

Omega are the title sponsor with Dubai Aluminium, BMW, CNN, Emirates Airlines, Emirates NBD, Gulf News, Jumeirah Golf Estates, Jumeirah Hotels and MasterCard as co-sponsors.

Quite an impressive array, you would have to agree.

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