Rory McIlroy’s last appearance in the Dubai Desert Classic ended in huge frustration, but the two-time winner feels back in his comfort zone at Emirates Golf Club.
McIlroy held a two-shot lead with eight holes to play in 2018, but bogeyed the 11th and 16th and three-putted the par-five 13th for par as China’s Li Haotong claimed the biggest win of his career.
Asked his reaction at missing out on a first win since September 2016, McIlroy told European Tour Radio: “Yeah, p***** off. The competitor in me is very disappointed right now.”
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Despite missing out on victory four years ago, McIlroy has a superb overall record in the event, winning his first European Tour title here in 2009 and regaining the trophy in 2015, as well as recording six other top-10 finishes.
“A lot of good memories here,” the four-time major winner said. “Played (twice) as an amateur, got to world number one amateur after playing pretty well in 2007.
“I lived in Dubai for four years as well. I have a lot of close friends from this region. It’s a very comfortable place for me and it’s nice to be back.
“This was one of the first events I played on the European Tour back in 2006 as a 16-year-old. After one round I was able to get inside the ropes and have a media credential and watch Tiger (Woods).
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“He hit a five-iron out of the right rough on 10 and stopped it on the green and to this day it was one of the best golf shots I’ve ever seen. Just sticks out in my mind and I was right there for it.
“It’s a great golf course. It’s a fun golf course to play, gives you plenty of opportunities to make birdies. You have the three par fives on the back nine. You have a couple of reachable par fours.
“The course, as the trees grow up, everything got claustrophobic over the years and they have sort of tried to clear that out again.
“It definitely doesn’t feel as constricting as it used to and it certainly doesn’t feel as constricting as even like last week where you had a lot of trouble on either side of fairways and water.
“There’s some opportunities where you can just step up and give it a rip, which is nice.”
McIlroy had to birdie the 18th to make the halfway cut on the mark of three over par in Abu Dhabi, but surged through the field over the weekend and was just two shots off the lead after 13 holes of the final round.
Three bogeys in the last five holes meant the 32-year-old had to settle for a tie for 12th as former Ryder Cup partner Thomas Pieters went on to lift the title.
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“It was a good weekend, a disappointing finish on Sunday but I felt some of the golf I played over the weekend was very encouraging,” McIlroy added.
“I guess (I need) just more of the same, maybe just try to refine a few things here and there.
“But it’s early in the year, and all I can ask for is getting myself into contention, trying to hit shots under pressure when it matters and hopefully I get another chance to do that this week.”
McIlroy will not be in the field for next week’s Saudi International, which was part of the European Tour from 2019 to 2021 but is now the flagship event on the Asian Tour.
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And he has questioned how the eye-watering appearance fees being paid to attract some of the world’s top players will affect their performance.
“It’s the competitive integrity to me that’s one of the biggest issues here, right,” McIlroy told reporters in Dubai.
“It’s like how hard are guys going to compete when they know that they are guaranteed whatever the money is.
“Even when I started to get appearance fees back in 2009 or whatever, I struggled with that, going to tournaments in Korea and Japan feeling like I’ve already won before I teed it up and had to get over that mental battle of that as well.”