Dubai favourite McIlroy hoping to bowl them over in the desert again

Dubai’s Majlis Course holds happy memories for 25-year-old Rory McIlroy and the Irishman is hoping to add to them this weekend.

In 2009 the Co Down man claimed a debut Tour title aged 19, aided by long-time caddie JP Fitzgerald.

“I said to JP today, it’s been six years since that win and hasn’t been a bad six years... when you get your first win, you feel you move to a different level,” said McIlroy, who has since claimed four Majors and requires a Masters title at Augusta to complete the career grand slam.

The Irishman has finished second at his last three Tour events, including the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship two weeks ago where sloppy putting in the third round proved decisive.

“I’m very happy with where my game is tee-to-green and put some good work in over the last week on my short game, which needed a little bit of sharpening up,” said McIlroy.

“I could probably get better at my wedge play from 80-130 yards because I leave myself a lot of shots from that distance. Even if it saves me one or two strokes a tournament, it could make a big difference.”

Dubai will be McIlroy’s final European Tour appearance before flying to the US to begin preparations for April’s Masters in Augusta.

“It’s important to put in some good performances before, get into contention and feel what it’s like in the heat of the moment, because that’s when you really know how your game is and how it holds up under some pressure,” added McIlroy.

Meanwhile Tiger Woods is looking to prove he can still be the force he once was against two of golf’s young rising stars when the Phoenix Open gets under way today in Arizona.

Woods will be making yet another comeback from injury at TPC Scottsdale in his first event of the 2015 season and first tournament since he finished joint last at the Hero World Challenge in December.

He will play the first two days paired with 21-year-old world number nine Jordan Spieth and 15th-ranked Patrick Reed, 24 — the two players who probably left Gleneagles with the most credit after the United States’ third straight Ryder Cup loss last year.

Woods could not compete in Scotland as he continued to recover from the effects of back surgery, but the 39-year-old is confident those problems are behind him. And Woods also believes his driving, which was notably erratic even at his peak and has been put in the shade by the game’s new big-hitters, is as strong as when he last played this event 14 years ago.

“My driving has come around a lot faster,” he said. “I’m a lot longer than I thought I ever could be again. My speed is way back up, and that’s fun. I’m touching numbers that I did 15 years ago, so that’s cool.”

He added: “I’m driving it. It felt great, driving my ball.”

Woods’ disappointing week at the Hero World Challenge was notable for his poor chipping, and the 14-time Major winner feels he has now adjusted to his new methods with swing consultant Chris Como.

“I was caught between techniques, between my old release pattern and body movement when I was working with Sean (Foley) and then my new release pattern,” he added.

“We had to basically just hit thousands upon thousands upon thousands of chips and just get it out of there, and now it’s better.”

Woods was clearly more relaxed facing the media in the desert than he often is and, while he seemed confident, he admitted he had some obstacles to overcome over the 7,152-yard layout.

“I think I need to work on a little bit here, getting the speed of these greens, because in your head, you assume hard greens with a lot of spring to them are going to be fast, but they’re not fast,” he said.

“They spring, but they putt slow. So I need to do some work to try to overcome the mental hurdle to make sure I can hit the putts hard, even though I know coming into the greens I have to throw the ball straight up in the air, play for a big hop, chips, play for two big hops before the ball starts thinking about stopping.”

Woods may be the main attraction at TPC Scottsdale, but he will have competition from a strong field including world number four Bubba Watson, last week’s Humana Challenge winner Bill Haas and FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel.

Defending champion Kevin Stadler will not be playing due to a wrist injury, but Robert Allenby returns to action following his alleged kidnapping in Hawaii, and the notoriously raucous crowds will back Arizona State alumnus Phil Mickelson. Jamie Donaldson and Francesco Molinari lead the European charge, Ireland’s Pádraig Harrington also in the field.

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