Rory McIlroy will go head-to-head with Jordan Speith at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship this week with the American’s position as World Number One firmly in his sights.
McIlroy, Spieth and Jason Day have been battling it out for the top spot over the last 12 months with Spieth currently in pole position, followed by Day with McIlroy in third.
And on the eve of the first event of his Race to Dubai defence at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy, who spent 95 cumulative weeks at the top of the Official World Golf Ranking, is determined to regain that status this season.
“I still like to look at it and see where I’m at,” he said. “Especially the strength of field for this week and how many points you would get for a win, so it’s always there.
“I know I need to play well this week to leapfrog Jason. I think if I can finish second, I can get up above him.
“But I’ve made no secret about wanting to get back to that position, and I’d like to do it as quickly as possible. So it’s definitely a motivation.”
For his part Spieth, who won the Masters Tournament and the US Open Championship last season, is hoping to use the achievements of four-time Major winner McIlroy, and others, to spur him on to even greater things.
“You can be satisfied and think about all the stuff you’ve done or you can look at what these guys who you’ve looked up to your whole life have accomplished more than you have,” he said.
“So look at Tiger (Woods), Phil (Mickelson), Rory, these guys that have done more in the game of golf than I have, and I want to strive to get to what they have done. I want my name to go down in history for as many things as it can. That’s where my mind is, I’m less satisfied with what’s happened and more hungry to try and keep it going.
“I understand that it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a marathon; it’s not a sprint. I’m willing to put in that time and go through the process. And you’re going to have good weeks, you’re going to have off weeks, I understand that. But as long as you can get just a little bit better each year, then the results will come.”
To make any inroads into Spieth’s lead, McIlroy will have to finish above the 22 year old this week, with Spieth coming into his first European Tour event outside Major Championships and World Golf Championships off the back of a win at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions where he finished 30 under par.
With a field including eight Major Champions, 89 European Tour winners, six European Tour Number Ones and five World Number Ones, however, the Northern Irishman knows that Spieth is not the only man to beat this week.
“I don’t play the game on markers at all,” he said. “I want to play my best, and I don’t have to just beat Jordan Spieth this week. I have to beat another 142 guys.
“So it would be foolish of me to think that that’s all that my competition was, I think it would be an injustice to every other player that’s in the field because there’s so much talent on Tour and there’s so much depth that if you forget about everyone else that could win the tournament, it’s not really smart to do that.
I want to play well this week, and if that means laying down a marker to someone or to the rest of the field, then that’s great. But I just want to try to play my best and hopefully win this thing – Rory McIlroy
“I’ve had four runners-up and I’ve been close a couple of times. Hopefully I can change that this week.”
This will be the seventh consecutive year that McIlroy has started his campaign in Abu Dhabi with those four second-place finishes all coming in the last five years.
He will tee it up alongside Spieth and Rickie Fowler on Thursday morning and is hopeful that he can once again use the event as a springboard to a successful season.
“It was a nice break over Christmas and new year,” he said. “I felt like I needed it mentally and physically a little bit. So it was nice to take that extended break and come back feeling really refreshed and excited to go.
“I’ve said this before: I don’t think there’s any better place to start the year than here in Abu Dhabi with the weather, the golf course, the field that HSBC is able to put together.
“It’s a real competitive start to the year, and I feel like it’s really helped me start the year quickly and well over the past few years, and hopefully that’s the same case this year.
“Teeing off on Thursday morning, it’s your first competitive shot in a couple of months. To tee up alongside those guys, the excitement, there’s a buzz about it.
“Every year coming back here to Abu Dhabi, it was sort of the same last year with Rickie and the previous couple of years it was with Tiger. You’re teeing off the first round of your season and it feels like you’re right into the thick of things at the start. So I think that’s really beneficial for a lot of guys to start the year like that.”