SHANGHAI: A resurgent Rory McIlroy is looking to end 2016 in style, starting by winning the prestigious World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in Shanghai this week.
But the PGA Tour’s newly-crowned FedEx Cup champion will have to overcome all four of 2016’s first-time major winners and 40 of the world’s top 50 players in a star-studded field if he is to lift the title for the first time.
The list of champions of the tournament dubbed “Asia’s Major” reads like a who’s who of golf.
But the Northern Irishman’s illustrious name is missing from a WGC-HSBC Champions roll of honour featuring Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson, something McIlroy would love to put right.
“Here, yes, I’d love to tick that one off,” McIlroy told AFP.
“I’ve won in Hong Kong before. I’ve won in Shanghai but it wasn’t an officially sanctioned event at the time (the Shanghai Masters in 2011).
“I’d love to win in China again and I’ve played well enough on this golf course to win but just haven’t really done enough when it mattered. Hopefully this year will be the year to change that.”
The good news for McIlroy is that he appears finally to have put his injury-wracked 2015 behind him.
McIlroy ripped ankle ligaments playing football and had to miss his British Open defence and a large chunk of last season.
And so wretched were his 2015 fortunes that when he got to Shanghai a year ago he was floored by a dodgy sandwich and severe food poisoning which meant he could not practise.
McIlroy did manage to tee off 12 months ago — albeit 10 pounds lighter — and finished tied 11th, the only time he has failed to make the top six at Sheshan.
“I’ve avoided the club sandwich this week,” joked McIlroy.
“The aim is to get out of China in one piece. I’m taking every precaution to be in good shape,” he laughed.
McIlroy still went on to win the Race to Dubai and it seemed his game had turned the corner, more so when he won the Irish Open in May.
– Ground to make up –
But he missed the cut in two majors — the US Open and the US PGA championship — largely because of an inability to find the cup with the putter.
But his mojo returned on the greens during the FedEx Cup series last month as he stormed to two wins in four events — the Deutsche Bank Championship and the season-ending Tour Championship — and a $10 million bonus.
“After the FedEx Cup and the Ryder Cup I wanted to take some time off as it was a busy stretch of golf,” said former number one McIlroy.
“I went to Dubai last week for a few days to practise and, yeah, the game’s feeling really good and I’m really happy with where I’m at.
“I’d love to do the double (FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai). There’s a lot of ground to make up but that’s nothing a couple of wins wouldn’t fix.”
Masters champion Danny Willett leads the Race to Dubai standings and has great memories of the 7,261-yard Sheshan course on the western outskirts of Shanghai’s seething metropolis of 24 million people.
The Englishman shot a flawless 62 with 10 birdies in the final round a year ago to finish in a share of third place.
British Open champion and Olympic silver medallist Henrik Stenson lies second in the European Tour standings and will be looking to close the gap with McIlroy lurking in third.
US Open Champion Dustin Johnson took his first big tournament win at the WGC-HSBC Champions in 2013 while US PGA Champion Jimmy Walker completes the full house of 2016 major winners in China this week.
Justin Thomas, who retained his PGA Tour CIMB Classic title in Kuala Lumpur last week, plus US Ryder Cup talismen Patrick Reed and Rickie Fowler and defending champion Russell Knox are also in the hunt for a share of the $9.5 million prize fund — the richest in world golf outside America and the majors.