DUBAI, U.A.E — Going into the European Tour’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship this week, only five golfers can possibly win the Race to Dubai title. In sixth place, Rory McIlroy is not one of those, a fact that isn’t bothering the Northern Irishman even a little bit. Three times a winner in the past, McIlroy will close the most consistent season of his already notable career more than content with what he has achieved in 2019.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to do it, but I just haven’t played enough counting events  to have a chance,” said McIlroy, who re-joined the tour after a brief hiatus too late for his second-place finish in the WGC-Mexico Championship and T-9 at the WGC-Dell Match Play in the spring to count on what used to be called the Order of Merit. “Look at someone like [current leader] Bernd Wiesberger, who has played 25, 26, 27 [actually 28] times. Those are the guys that deserve to be up there with a chance to win.
“I’ve earned enough money this year. I’m fine. It [the Race to Dubai] wasn’t on my radar at the start of the year. But I’ve still got a chance to win this tournament, and that’s important to me. That’s enough for me to be here.”
Well, that and the record-breaking $3 million first-place check.
Expanding on his theme, McIlroy rattled off a list of things that have pleased him over the course of a season in which he has finished in the top 10 in 75 percent of his starts on the PGA and European tours and won four times worldwide. At the start of the year, McIlroy followed his usual practice of writing down various goals. In just about all of them he has, statistically at least, surpassed his original targets.
“I wanted to be 0.25 strokes gained/putting for the year,” he said. “I nearly doubled that, which is a massive improvement. And I wanted to be 0.2 in short-game strokes gained. I was 0.3. To me, there’s no point in writing that I want 75 percent top 10s. How do you do that? How do you get there? You get there is by improving little aspects in your game.”
Cumulatively, they amounted to him being able to win the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup and its Player of the Year honors. If there was disappointment in 2019 for McIlroy, it was his performance in majors. The record will show top-10 finishes at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open, but he was not seriously in contention at either event, and his missed cut at the Open Championship at Portrush was arguably the low point of his season.
Still, goal-setting in the world of Rory is an ever-changing and always-evolving thing. So far, 2012 is the only year in which the four-time major champion has won five times. This week he has a chance to equal that—“so that is now a goal of mine.”
“Those things come as you progress through your season,” he said. “I don’t think it’s necessarily the right thing to do at the start of the year. Again, it’s those little incremental improvements that ultimately get you to 75 percent top 10s, or five wins, or whatever it is.”
For all that, one aspect of McIlroy’s almost peerless arsenal has seen a particularly significant improvement over the last few months: putting, an area of his game that has drawn more than a little criticism over the years.
“2014 was the first year I ever finished in the top 50 in strokes gained/putting,” he said. “This year I finished in the top 25. I’ve made huge strides in that this year, which has been a big part of why I’ve been much more consistent and been able to win a few times.”
It would, however, not be a McIlroy press conference on the European Tour without mention of the impact the new worldwide schedule has had on the Old World circuit and its ability to attract elite players on a consistent basis.
With the tour’s “flagship event,” the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, now being played in September rather than May, the prolonged absences of those who tend to make up the bulk of the European Ryder Cup side has only been accentuated. After the lucrative Middle East swing in January and early February, the stars do not come out to play until after the U.S. Open in June.
“The new schedule has not been good for the European Tour,” says one leading player who asked not to be identified. “Even at this time of year, when you might have expected more of the big names to play, they just haven’t. It’s not a good look. And as a result, the tour is struggling. It’s a big issue. And as soon as a major sponsor pulls out—which could happen—all hell is going to break loose. We’re not quite at that stage yet, but it’s close.”
By way of example, McIlroy was not seen at a regular European Tour event this year until the Scottish Open in July. Although he doesn’t quite share the level of pessimism displayed by his colleague, he recognizes that things are far from perfect.
“For golf, it’s good in that it [the new schedule] encourages guys to play more,” he said. “This is the first time since I broke into the top 50 that I’ve hit the maximum divisor of 52 in the World Ranking. I played 27 last year, and this is my 25th event this year. I’ve played a lot of golf the last couple of years.
“Still, there’s not much time between tournaments once you get to March. To be competitive on both sides of the pond, you have to play quite a bit. It’s fast and furious. It’s not as if you can take two or three weeks off to work on your game. Whatever you have for the season, that’s what you have to go with. I’d love to see the major schedule spread out so that casual fans are more interested. Not just for five or six months but maybe nine or 10 months of the year.”
Next year isn’t going to be any easier scheduling-wise. Already, McIlroy sees a problem. Starting with the Irish Open (which he skipped this year), he has a potential run of six events in succession. Too many. “I’m not going to play six in a row, so there will be one week there that I'll have to take off.”
Happily for the European Tour, McIlroy was talking about a PGA Tour event. But then there is the Olympics in Tokyo. In 2020, the windows of opportunity for the Wentworth-based circuit will be even more opaque than normal.