We sit down with world number one and one of the planet’s greatest living sportsmen, Rory McIlroy, ahead of his much-anticipated return to the greens of the capital. All together now: ‘Fore!’
Hi Rory. So you’re coming back to Abu Dhabi – looking forward to it?
Very much so. This is the sixth time I will have played this championship in Abu Dhabi and I have always played pretty well here. In the past four years I’ve had two second place finishes and a third and a fifth, so it’s a golf course that I feel suits my game. Abu Dhabi is a great place to start the year.
What memories do you have of playing in Abu Dhabi before?
I’ve always felt comfortable and always enjoyed playing here, which can be seen in my previous results, but having said that I have never won here so that’s what I want to do this time round. It’s a great place, the people are very friendly and I like to spend a bit of time here enjoying myself. You can definitely see Abu Dhabi evolve every time you come back, with places like Yas Island and Saadiyat.
What sort of reception do you get from the crowds here?
They’re great. I have had a very close connection with Dubai over the years and I won my first professional tournament there so I am very fond of the UAE. Abu Dhabi is great, the fans learn more every year and they are fortunate to have such a fantastic Championship on their doorstep. The players always appreciate the fans coming out and supporting us, so for that we are really grateful.
What sets Abu Dhabi apart from other championships?
This championship develops every year and in terms of the field and the ranking points available it is an ideal start to a season. I’m sure this year will be no different. You get straight at it right away playing in probably one of the strongest fields on the European Tour that will be assembled all year, besides the Majors and WGCs of course. Tiger will obviously be there and it is always nice to play against him; it is not often we see him play in events on The European Tour, so I’m sure the fans are looking forward to that.
Have you ever had the chance to get out and see any of Abu Dhabi? Is there anything or anywhere in particular you liked?
Yes, I have been out and about in Abu Dhabi quite a few times. It’s a great place and is constantly evolving, there always seems to be something new to do. I have made my way down to the Corniche and enjoy looking at the spectacular buildings down there. One of my best memories of Abu Dhabi, away from the golf, was attending the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix a couple of years back. Caroline [Wozniacki, girlfriend and top women’s tennis player, pictured above right] and I really enjoyed it and it was great to get close to the F1 guys.
How much pressure do you feel being one of the most famous sportsmen in the world at such a young age?
To be honest I try not to think about it but I feel that the pressure in golf comes from within – golf is mostly a very individual game so I can only put pressure on myself. The off-course stuff comes with what I have achieved on course so while it takes a little bit of getting used to, I generally quite enjoy it.
What’s the biggest misconception about you?
I’m not really sure to be honest, some people may have thought that I didn’t have the desire at some stage but I’ve always felt like I’ve been dedicated to the game, and I’ve practised hard and I’ve worked at it. But I guess over the past 18 months, especially after winning the US Open, I sort of felt like I went to the next level or the next stage of my career. I feel like my personality away from the golf course hasn’t changed, but definitely when I get to the golf course I’m maybe a little more professional, a little more business-like and go about my business like that. But I guess that’s just the way you have to be to be successful and to try and win as many tournaments as you possibly can.
How do you prepare yourself for a big tournament like the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship?
I make sure I practise really hard and work on all aspects of my game, paying particular attention to anything that isn’t quite right and may be bugging me. I make sure I have prepared myself to the best of my ability; you have to go into a tournament with your mind fully focused on winning it.
Be honest, do you ever get fed up playing golf?
Never. I wouldn’t swap my job with any other in the world and wouldn’t say I have ever been fed up with it, but you do have your frustrations, just as anyone might have about their job on a bad day, then it is time to take a break as it usually means I am tired. That is why scheduling is so important. I have a long career ahead of me and I know I need to pace myself. I love what I do so I consider myself very lucky.
When you’re not playing or practising what do you like to do?
Like any normal guy, I like to spend time with my family, with my girlfriend and just generally relax. The golf season is a long one and when I get time off I like to use it wisely. It’s important to completely switch off and get away from it all. Obviously it is always nice to go on holiday and relax by a pool in the sun, or mess around on the beach. I watch a fair bit of football, rugby, and I like to keep an eye on all other sports such as tennis. I enjoy being the spectator when Caroline is playing.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen or heard on a golf course?
I’m sure there are plenty, but one that stands out was at the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor when a bunch of the guys lifted the gloom on the Wednesday morning by wearing wigs to look like me. It was pretty funny.
When was the last time you had the chance to step back and look at what you’ve achieved?
Well I have had a bit of a break over Christmas, so it gave me an opportunity for everything to sink in and think about just how much I managed to accomplish last year. I had a few goals starting off in 2012, obviously including wanting to win a Major, the Race to Dubai and to be World No 1. I managed to achieve all of them so it doesn’t get much better than that. But it doesn’t stop there; I want to continue my rich vein of form in 2013, to be focused on the Majors. I’ve won a Major in each of the past two seasons so it would be nice to keep that run going this year. I just want to try to keep improving as a player. I can feel like I can improve in different areas.
What ambition would you like to fulfil before the end of your career?
I just think I’m fortunate enough to be young, healthy and hopefully have a long career ahead of me. It’s obvious that I would like to have a substantial run at being World No 1, win more tournaments, be part of more successful Ryder Cup teams and achieve more Majors, but if I end up with just the two Majors, I will of course be disappointed, but so be it. All I know is that every time I tee up at a Major, like any other tournament, I will be looking for a win. I know I have the game to win many – how many, only time will tell.