Rory McIlroy makes his first appearance of the new year next week at the Abu Dhabi Championship, looking to bounce back to his best after a topsy-turvy 2021.
The Northern Irishman will make his eighth attempt to complete the career Grand Slam at the Masters in April, but ending his eight-year wait for any Major title would be an excellent achievement.
McIlroy was the world No 1 midway through the 2020 season but had slipped to 16th in the rankings just 15 months later.
There were flashes of his best in the closing stages of last year, although it ended with a late collapse and torn shirt at the DP World Tour Championship in November and a low finish in the Hero World Challenge.
He jumped back into the top 10 by claiming his 20th PGA Tour victory at the CJ Cup in October, becoming just the fourth non-American to reach the mark since World War II.
“For the last few months, I was trying to be someone else,” four-time Major winner McIlroy said after that success. “I realise that being me is enough and that’s enough to do things like this.”
McIlroy had endured a nightmare Ryder Cup as Europe were thrashed 19-9 by the United States at Whistling Straits.
The 32-year-old lost all of his three matches on the opening two days, before saving some face with a win over Xander Schauffele in the singles.
“I was disappointed with how I played [in the Ryder Cup]” admitted McIlroy. “I get more emotional thinking about that than about this [CJ Cup win].”
After a winless 2020, two titles last year were welcome for McIlroy, but he will be targeting the Majors this time around.
He remains one of the most consistent players at golf’s four biggest events, with 13 top-10 finishes since his last title at the 2014 PGA Championship.
But McIlroy has rarely challenged deep into the final round of any of those tournaments, with even his runners-up effort in the 2018 Open a four-way tie, two strokes adrift of winner Francesco Molinari.
McIlroy said after the Ryder Cup that sometimes he is not hard enough on himself, despite enjoying a glittering career to date.
“Sometimes I give myself too easy of a time and I try to play it off with, you know, ‘Golf doesn’t define me and I’ve got balance in my life and I’m happy away from the course’.
“That’s obviously very true, but if I’m honest, sometimes I sort of maybe use that as a way to lessen the blow if I don’t play good golf.”
McIlroy has sometimes been a slow starter and is without a title in the month of January.
But he will be among the favourites going to Abu Dhabi, where he has finished second four times, although world No 2 and Open champion Collin Morikawa heads a strong field.
McIlroy looked in excellent touch for the first three rounds of the European Tour’s season-ending Tour Championship in Dubai, only to slip from the lead into a tie for sixth as Morikawa stormed through the field to win.
Morikawa, a two-time major champion at just 24, is one of a host of youngsters that McIlroy will have to get the better of in the next 12 months if he is to become a dominant force again.
World No 1 Jon Rahm will be hoping to add to his US Open triumph from last June, while Dustin Johnson was imperious in the Ryder Cup, Viktor Hovland is now the top-ranked European and Jordan Spieth is threatening a fully-blown resurgence.
Time is not running out for McIlroy yet – Phil Mickelson won the 2021 PGA Championship aged 50 – but his rivals are not going to get any weaker.
© Agence France-Presse