Rory McIlroy arrives in Dubai to defend his DP World Tour Championship title with, for once, the pressure off. Without a hope of retaining his place as the European Tour's best player that accompanied that triumph a year ago, and with the legal battles that he admits have taken his eye off the ball this season now beginning to recede, there is good reason for optimism.
Despite a poor season in 2013, he has shown recent signs of form. Following a season-best second-placed finish in China two weeks, and a one-stroke victory over Tiger Woods in their head-to-head match, Rory was quick to pay tribute to Nike for his regained form and success off the tee. "The driver I'm using and the new Nike ball I'm hitting, I think is the best driver & ball combo I've ever had," he said of a sponsorship that has also been cited as a symptom of his malaise.
The season-long Race To Dubai concludes with the top 60 players on the European Tour order of merit meeting on the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates. With $8m in prize money and over $3m in bonus money available over the next four days, there is much to be gained. Pleasingly for McIlroy, the stats suggest his spot as 11/2 favourite with the bookies is well-deserved.
Going down a desert storm
- Since 2009, Rory McIlroy's scoring average at the Earth Course is a full stroke better than anyone else:
- Rory McIlroy: 68.3
- Louis Oosthuizen: 69.3
- Alvaro Quiros: 69.3
- Lee Westwood: 69.3
- Peter Hanson: 69.4
- McIlroy has finishes of 1st, 3rd, 5th and 11th in his four appearances at the DP World Tour Championship, for a combined total of 59-under-par.
A glance at the past winners at the Earth Course would suggest success favours big hitters. McIlroy, Alvaro Quiros, Robert Karlsson and Lee Westwood all possess a great deal of distance, both off the tee and into the greens. Indeed, Karlsson is the only winner to not rank inside the top 10 in driving distance for the season he won (ranking 45th in 2010).
Typically, desert style courses are long and wide off the tee with large, smooth, slower-paced greens. The Earth Course measures 7,675 yards this week, the longest of the four Final Series venues, while the greens can only be allowed to get so fast due to the undulations that would make them unplayable if too slick.
Greg Norman dubbed the final four holes as "the most challenging mile in golf" and to win this week the champion will have to do particularly well over these holes to win on Sunday.
McIlroy birdied all four to win 12 months ago, Quiros famously eagled the 18th in 2011, Karlsson birdied the final hole three times in a row to win in a playoff in 2010 and Lee Westwood completed a perfect round, hitting every fairway and every green in regulation, en route to a final round 64 in 2009.
Another feature of the Earth Course is its propensity to yield low scores. The last four winners have combined to shoot a staggered 79-under par combined. Thus, it seems finding a hot putter and an ability to score is a prerequisite to finding success in Dubai. McIlroy and Karlsson led the field in putts-per-green-in-regulation the years they won. Whilst Quiros and Westwood, historically not known for their putting, both finished 6th the years they won.
So if you hit it long, straight and make a lot of putts you'll do well here, right?
Actually, you don't need to hit it all that straight.
With the length of the course, there is more emphasis on getting the ball further down the fairway than in the middle of it. Of the four past winners, only Westwood finished inside the top-20 in fairways hit.
Where does McIlroy sit in driving accuracy this season? An astonishing 190th on the European Tour, and even a slight improvement on the PGA Tour has only seen him climb from 156th to 144th in 12 months.
It's time for the Northern Irishman to grip it, rip it, putt it, and win his first event of the year.
Jamie Kennedy is a golf writer and stats nerd. Follow him @jamieonsport