Interview with Rory McIlroy at 2021 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Ahead of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, we spoke to Rory McIlroy about his goals for the upcoming season and why Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are an inspiration.

How excited you are to be back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, a Rolex Series Event, and can you expand on your goals for this season?

Yeah, it’s good to be back. I started my season in Abu Dhabi for whatever it was, 11 straight years, 2008 to 2018 and it’s worked well for me. I’ve played well here. I enjoy playing in the desert, this style of golf.

And yeah, I think obviously last year was a different year and I really didn’t travel back over this part of the world and play at all.

But now with things, it’s still obviously not where we want it to be, but I think we know a little bit more about what’s going on in terms of how the virus is and how it affects you or how it doesn’t affect you in many cases and feel a little more comfortable traveling. It’s great to be out here and playing.

It’s a great way to start the year. It’s a big event. Got some great players here. Obviously J.T. has made the trip over, as well. Yeah, the start of our Ryder Cup points starting again and all that, so a lot of guys will want to start well and get themselves off to a fast start in regards to that, too.

But yeah really excited to be back. It’s a golf course I’ve done well at and played well on. I’ve done everything but win here and yeah, I’ll try again for the, whatever it is, the 12th time, and see if I can get the job done.

What’s your reaction to the news that Tiger Woods will be undergoing more back surgery?

I mean, I won the Masters with four back surgeries, so there’s not much he can do.

It’s hard to believe you have not actually won in Abu Dhabi. How good would it be to start this year by finally getting that win over the line?

It would be a great way to start the year. Of the, whatever it is, I saw something the other day, of the 13 times I’ve played a first tournament of a season in my pro career, I’ve had 11 Top 5s. The fact that there is no win in there is a little — a little surprising I guess. I come out at the start of the year and I don’t think you’re as fully sharp as you would want to be but at least the optimism is there and the enthusiasm is there. You know, you don’t have any — there’s not any scar tissue built up from previous tournaments that year. I feel like every year is a fresh start and I like that feeling.

I have played well the first tournament back and hopefully I can do the same again this week.

It’s your first tournament of the year and you recently have made strong starts to the season. Do you feel any impatience to get back into the winning circle?

Yeah, I think so. China back in November 2019 does feel like a long time ago; that the world was a much different place back then than it is now.

Yeah, look, I had a great start last year. Didn’t really play that great coming back out of lockdown, but then felt like I was starting to play a lot better as the season came to an end. Saw some promising signs, on the West Coast in L.A. and Vegas and had a decent Masters. Played really well the last three rounds there.

So yeah, I mean, I’m trying not to be impatient. I try to stay as patient as possible, but what I will say is that last win does feel like quite a long time ago at this point.

In the days when you needed a boarding pass, you famously wrote your goals down on one. Have you noted down goals for 2021?

Yeah, I mean, New Year’s resolutions, goals, yeah, but they are all little — I think any time I know write down goals, it’s very sort of pie-in-the-sky stuff to say, I want to win this or I want to win that. It’s what’s all the stuff that you have to go through to get that point, so short game goals, right. It’s all that sort of stuff.

So it’s — yeah, it’s nothing new. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel in any way. It’s just a matter of, you know, putting in really good habits at the start of the year and just trying to stick to them the whole way through.

As a 31-year-old, do you feel that you could still go on for another decade and still be right at the top of your game as Lee Westwood has recently done and obviously Tiger?

Phil won an the PGA TOUR, as well, at 48 years old. Yeah, it’s funny, when I came, you know, I came here to Abu Dhabi as an 18-year-old. Yeah, 2008, I would have been an 18-year-old, first time I played here was my first year on The European Tour and I honestly really couldn’t see myself at that point playing past 40. And then I’m 31 now and I’m like, geez, that doesn’t seem like that far away.

Yeah, look, I still feel like I have a good 15 years left in me. If I’m competitive and can still play, I can see myself doing what the likes of Lee and Tiger and Phil have done over the past couple of years.

What was the festive season like with the new addition to your family? It must have been special, but have you seen much of the family since the end of competition last year?

Yeah, seen a lot of them. I didn’t really go anywhere. Like once the Masters was over, we just went back to Florida. My mum and dad stayed there. There was no point in them going back home with everything that was going on with lockdowns back in Northern Ireland. So yeah, we saw a lot of each other. My in-laws came down for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Yeah, we had a nice time. So yeah, a lot of family time, which I feel very fortunate about that because of where we live and it is maybe a lot more open than other places around the world. We had the opportunity to spend time with family which was really nice.

With the news about the European Tour hooking up with the PGA Tour, what do you think that means about the future of pro golf in general?

It obviously leads to more cohesion of the professional game as a whole. I think at the minute, the professional game is a little fractured. It has been fractured for quite a while. There’s so many different entities. You’ve got the major organisations. You’ve got the tours. You’ve got — I think if anything, what COVID did is sort of help all these entities work better together and understand what their needs are and what the situation they are in. I think the majors now understand what the tours go through trying to put on a season-long schedule.

So I think if anything, it just makes everything a little more cohesive and by the governing bodies and the Tour working better together, I think it will just make it a more streamlined product for the players, for the media, for the consumer, basically for everyone.

Could you expand a little bit on those micro goals you touched on earlier? A flavour of what they might be and where you wrote them down this time.

Yeah, stats-related goals. There was a couple of stats that stood out to me last year that I needed to be a little bit better at. One of the things was approach play out of the rough, which is sort of random, but I hit 60 percent of fairways, so that means 40 percent of the time I’m hitting out of the rough, which is quite a lot, and my performance out of the rough last year was way down than what it was the previous year.

My approaches off the fairway were actually pretty similar, and then there was a couple different like putting — like between four and eight feet wasn’t quite as good as it was the previous year, and a couple little things like that. So goals in terms of, you know, I want to get those better. Obviously if I get those better, my game will become better.

But then it even goes before that, okay, well, how do I make sure that my four- to eight-footers get better. How do I make sure that I get better out of the rough.

It’s hard because who goes and drops a bag of practise balls in the rough and starts hitting shots in the rough. You go to the range and hit off a perfectly manicured piece of turf, and that’s nice but that’s not what you’re always doing on the golf course.

Just little things like that. Just sort of performance goals and goals that if I practise the right way and I get those right, then it will sort of be a knock-on effect and help everything else.

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