Barely Still No. 1, McIlroy Looks for the Magic He Conjured Last Year

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Since Rory McIlroy arrived in the United Arab Emirates over the weekend, he has seen his No. 1 world ranking preserved by virtue of another man’s missed putt in California, been drawn into a driving-range drama over whether he ignored a defector to LIV Golf and had a tee thrown his way in retaliation, and mentioned how he was served a subpoena on Christmas Eve.

But on Thursday, after one of the more bizarre tournament preludes in recent memory, McIlroy is expected to play a competitive round for the first time in 2023 and give his sport a glimpse at whether he has the form that last year rekindled some of the fever that followed him earlier in his career.

“I’ve been obviously practicing at home and practicing well, but it’s always first tournament of the year, getting back on to the golf course, just trying to get comfortable again with shots on the course and visuals and all that sort of stuff,” McIlroy said Wednesday in Dubai, where he had a debacle last January but a good-enough showing in November to win the season points crown for the DP World Tour, as the European Tour is currently marketed.

“I’m sure it will be a little bit of rust to start the week, but hopefully I can shake that off,” he continued.

In some respects, the scrutiny has never been greater. When McIlroy last won a major championship, he was 25 years old and Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund was not underwriting a splashy rival to the world’s top men’s golf tours. He is now 33, with a frustrating record of close calls but newfound stature as arguably the golf establishment’s pre-eminent spokesman against LIV.

He has spent much of the past year publicly answering questions about the Saudi-backed circuit — in response to one on Wednesday, for instance, he effectively called Greg Norman, LIV’s chief executive, weak — and privately crafting a response to it. He played exceptional golf, nevertheless, winning the European Tour points title, capturing the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup and finishing no worse than eighth place in 2022’s majors. The price, he suggested Wednesday, was exhaustion and a decision to “sort of distance myself from the game of golf” for a spell.

After he played an exhibition event with Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods on Dec. 10, he stashed his clubs and only picked them up again this year. Holding to his preference to start a calendar year’s competitions in the Middle East, he exercised his right to skip the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. He has held the No. 1 ranking, which he reclaimed in October, anyway, but Scottie Scheffler nearly took it back on Sunday, and Jon Rahm is threatening, having won two tournaments this year, both of them at 27 under par. (Rahm could essentially seize the top ranking on Saturday, when the PGA Tour’s event at Torrey Pines, where he won the 2021 U.S. Open, will conclude.)

A Guide to the LIV Golf Series

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A new series. The debut of the new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:

What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.

Why is the new series controversial? The event has created sparks within golf for upending the traditions and strictures of how the game is played. It has also become a lightning rod for human rights campaigners who accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to launder its reputation.

Who is playing it? Several top players and former major champions have joined LIV Golf, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Cameron Smith. But many of the biggest names in the sport, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away.

What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.

How has the PGA Tour responded? The PGA Tour suspended several members among the LIV Golf players after it denied them releases to participate in other events. The Justice Department later announced that it was investigating the PGA Tour for anticompetitive behavior. Meanwhile, the rival tours have engaged in a winding legal battle.

“We all know Jon is one of the best players in the world, whether there’s a 1 beside his name or a 2 beside his name, it doesn’t really matter,” McIlroy said of Rahm on Wednesday.

That may be true. But for all of the flaws of the Official World Golf Ranking system, including the formula that undervalues Rahm’s play in recent months, there is still power in the mystique of the top spot, and value in its marketing.

McIlroy on No. 2 during a practice round before the Dubai Desert Classic.Credit…Warren Little/Getty Images

The Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club, where McIlroy has won twice and made his first European Tour cut, offers an early opportunity to reassert himself before the PGA Tour’s onslaught of events and the pressure that promises to loom in early April, when he will try to complete the career Grand Slam at the Masters Tournament.

The question for McIlroy is whether his quest to rebalance his life was necessary for his game, or whether, despite the chaos and drain of last year, his starring role in golf’s tumult helped fuel sharper play. And the reality for McIlroy and his rivals, is that tumult is a fixture of professional golf for now.

On Tuesday alone, the PGA Tour asked an American court to let it escalate its legal pressure campaign against LIV and the wealth fund, and here in Dubai, Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters winner who joined LIV last year, approached McIlroy for a greeting.

By McIlroy’s account, he was busy with his training regimen and “didn’t feel the need to acknowledge” Reed.

In an interview, though, Reed offered a different explanation: “I knew it was because of LIV.” Although the ferocity of the subsequent seconds became the subject of plentiful gossip and social media chatter, one of Reed’s LIV tees wound up in McIlroy’s vicinity.

McIlroy said he “didn’t see a tee come in my direction at all, but apparently that’s what happened.” Reed, who lamented some press reports that he thought depicted him as having “reeled back and slinged one at him,” suggested what happened was closer to a flick or a toss, a mischievous effort to ease months of tensions.

The finer details of the kerfuffle notwithstanding, the strategy did not work. After a reporter asked McIlroy on Wednesday whether he could envision a repaired relationship with Reed someday, the tour’s official transcript did not invent an oral response from McIlroy, who remained silent. Instead, it offered a parenthetical, and exquisitely accurate, commentary of the moment: “Incredulous facial expression.” (Earlier, McIlroy jabbed at Reed’s reputation for litigiousness, saying, “If roles were reversed and I would have thrown that tee at him, I’d be expecting a lawsuit.”)

McIlroy later retreated to the driving range, which on Wednesday was a repeated target of downpours that led to school closures in a neighboring emirate. The forecast calls for rain on Thursday and Friday, too.

That could be good news for McIlroy, who has thrived in weather that tilted toward the miserable and won all four of his major titles after suboptimal conditions.

He is not, of course, going to win a major in Dubai. But he said Wednesday that a feeling of “a little bit of unfinished business” lingered after his 2022 performance in the Desert Classic.

Settling it, he knows, would send a message far beyond any Emirati driving range.

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