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Rory's Rise to Greatness

This time last year, I wrote a blog about the Desert Swing, how it sweeps through the Middle East like a sandstorm and always – and I mean always – produces golf and excitement of the absolute highest quality. This year was no different…but then, that’s not really a big surprise. The fields for the Desert Swing are some of the strongest of the European Tour season, the prize money is among the highest and the courses are, as the players themselves state, some of the best in terms of layout and condition.

So in many respects, this was like any other Desert Swing…except for one thing. Rory McIlroy.

Sure, Rory plays every year in the UAE, and in fact he now spends almost the entire month of January in Dubai, working on his game and playing in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Golf Championship and the Dubai Desert Classic. Add those events to the DP World Championship and, luckily for golf fans in the UAE, we get to see a lot of this unassuming Irish megastar.

The difference this year is that Rory arrived in the UAE as the Open champion, the USPGA champion, the Race to Dubai champion and the World Number 1. From the moment he sank the putt to win his first professional title, the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic, Rory has carried on his shoulders the expectation of the entire golfing world. That expectation can be described very simply; to replace Tiger Woods – arguably golf’s greatest ever player – as the new superstar of the game. Golf needs a new “great”, someone to challenge Jack and Tiger for the title of “the best of all time”. In recent years, other young stars of the game – Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Matteo Manassero – have been given the tag of “potential star”, but none has yet managed to fulfil their promise. Rory has.

At just 25 years old, Rory McIlroy has won 4 majors and 10 other events on the European and PGA Tours, including the DP World Championship, the BMW PGA Championship, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship. These aren’t exactly what you’d call “small events”. Oh, and let’s not forget the small matter of 3 Ryder Cup victories. Since he first rose to World Number 1 in March 2005, Rory has spent 65 weeks as officially the best player in the world (though he is still some way behind Tiger Woods, who held the number 1 rank for a total period of 683 weeks!).

Looking at his recent form, Rory’s last 7 results on the European Tour have been 1st, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 1st. This run, which includes back-to-back majors and a WGC, is unprecedented, and it beats the great Seve Ballesteros’ record of 5 consecutive top-2 finishes from when the Spanish wizard was at his peak.

But it’s not so much about the actual results, but more the manner in which he is achieving them. Like Tiger in his prime, Rory has a bounce in his step, a smile on his face and a confidence that tells him there’s no course, or opponent, that he can’t defeat. Last season, Rory overcame the early “equipment problems” that he experienced when he transitioned from Titleist to Nike. As a result, he’s now driving the ball further and more accurately than ever (ranked 1st in Dubai for driving distance, 6th in Abu Dhabi), striking irons with great control (5th in Dubai for GIR, 1st in Abu Dhabi) and making putts from everywhere (15th in Putts per GIR in Dubai, 4th in Abu Dhabi). It is his ability to hit every shot, from almost every position, that makes him the complete player.

It was no surprise to see thousands of fans out watching Rory on all 8 days play in the UAE. Why? Well firstly, of course, the fans want to see great golf…but all the players in the field are capable of delivering that. But really, fans want to be part of Rory’s rise to greatness. Like the best athletes in all sports – Pele, Muhammed Ali, Jack Nicklaus, Babe Ruth – fans want to be able to say “I was there, I saw him play”. I’m no different. I went to the UAE tournaments, and though I watched several players for a few holes each, I damn well made sure I watched Rory.

Add Rory’s unbelievable game to his honest attitude, his friendly demeanor, his engagement with the media and the fans, and we’ve finally found the newest golfing great. Rory is the game’s new megastar. He will carry the expectation of the golfing world for years to come as he chases down Tiger and Jack’s records, and I get the feeling he relishes that challenge. He won’t win every tournament, and he might not break those records - but he will continue to win fans as he makes his way around the world.

We’ll see Rory again in the UAE in November, and I’d bet my bottom dollar he'll be crowned Race to Dubai champion on the 18th green of the Earth course.