DUBAI, U.A.E. — OK, so he didn’t shoot the lowest round on the opening day at the DP World Tour Championship, an honor belonging to Frenchman Mike Lorenzo-Vera’s nine-under-par 63. But his was the shot of the day, maybe even the shot of the year and certainly, according to Rory McIlroy, “one of the best shots of my career.”
With 272 yards to the front of the par-5 18th green on the Jumeirah Estate’s Earth course and another 19 yards to the pin, McIlroy “nutted” a “perfect” 3-wood through the slightly left-to-right headwind. When the ball eventually came back to Earth, it expired no more than six feet from the cup. That the four-time major champion would then make the putt to complete a 64—his lowest-ever round on this Greg Norman design—was inevitable.
Right from the first tee, McIlroy’s play had been a continuation of what this year has become increasingly familiar and sure-footed, a round littered with seven birdies, just a single dropped shot and three putts that looked in before horse-shoeing out.
Hey, nothing is ever perfect. Not even Rory. But he was and is happy enough. About lots of things as it turned out.
“That 3-wood was possibly the best shot I've hit all year,” he said. “The wind was off the left, so it was a nice one for me. I could aim straight at the pin and know if I hit my little draw it should hold. And even if it did get going on the wind, the bunker on the right is better than the water on the left. I just flushed it. I normally carry my 3-wood off the deck about 280, so it was right on the limit. But as soon as I hit it, I knew it was perfect. It was right out of the middle.”
There will be no silverware as a reward for such near-perfection, but McIlroy already has plenty to reflect on. He wasn’t even giving first place in his own personal shot-making hall of fame to this latest combination of power and artistry.
“I hit a similar shot the first time I played at Doral, on the eighth hole,” he said. “That was also a 3-wood, and I made eagle. That remains one of the best fairway woods I’ve ever hit. But that was in the second round of the tournament and this is the first round. So no one is quite going to remember that one or today the same way as they do the two woods I hit into the 16th and 18th greens to win the 2016 Irish Open. But from a sheer quality shot standpoint and just having to step up and button one, this shot is up there for sure.”
In full flow now, McIlroy was just as effusive when reflecting on 2019 as a whole, the three-time European No. 1 clearly reeking with confidence.
“I can play relaxed this week after what I've been able to do this year,” he said. “Since I missed the cut in the Open Championship at Royal Portrush, there were a few things I wanted to accomplish. The FedEx Cup was right there, and I was able to win that. Winning another World Golf Championships was also cool.
“The golf that I've played since Portrush has been some of the best I've ever played. My stroke average is 67‑something. Sometimes these experiences can be a really good thing and a catalyst to being more motivated. I’ve tried to learn from every sort of setback that I've had, and I feel like I've done a good job with that, not just this year, but all the way throughout my career.”
Speaking of which, arriving back from Shanghai and his recent victory in the WGC-HSBC Champions, the 30-year-old Northern Irishman was surprised and delighted to find that his wife, Erica, had installed his trophy cabinet. After 18 months in storage, the glittering and tangible evidence of his long-term excellence was on display for him to savor anew.
“The win in China was cool, but to see everything up there was a nice reminder,” he said. “It was the first time in 18 months I had seen the claret jug and U.S. Open trophy and all that sort of stuff. It's a great motivator. I’m still pretty early in my career and I've done quite a lot, but I still want to do so much more.”
Starting with winning the $3.5 million first-place check this week. He may not be leading, but he is certainly the man to beat.