By Matt Smith
DUBAI (Reuters) – Rory McIlroy is surprised to still be the frontrunner for a third European money list title in four years this week after sitting out this month’s BMW Masters in Shanghai.
McIlroy can seal the money list crown, known as the Race to Dubai, by winning the season-ending $8 million DP World Tour Championship, which begins in the emirate on Thursday.
Danny Willett could have overtaken the four-time major winner in the standings, but the Englishman finished joint 28th on Sunday and trails by 1,613 points.
“I didn’t think I would still be there,” McIlroy told a news conference. “I felt a few guys had a chance last week to overtake me. That didn’t quite materialize.”
Earlier, Willett said he hoped he and McIlroy would be fighting it out to the last hole on Dubai’s Earth course, but the Northern Irishman was less enamoured by such a scenario.
“I just want to win the tournament,” said McIlroy. “I don’t care who finishes second, third. If I am the champion at the end of the week, it means that I win The Race to Dubai and that’s all I’m really thinking about.”
McIlroy has endured a topsy-turvy season. He won February’s Dubai Desert Classic to cement his position as the world number one, but finished fourth at April’s U.S Masters while chasing the only major title he has yet to win.
Two further victories followed but in July, he ruptured ankle ligaments playing football and missed out on the chance to defend his British Open crown.
United States’ Jordan Spieth and Australia’s Jason Day have since usurped the 26-year-old in the world rankings, with McIlroy now number three.
“When I came back toward the end of the summer and into autumn, the right and left ankles weren’t quite feeling the same but it was still good enough to do what I needed to do,” he said. “Now they feel exactly the same, which is great.”
He and Willett are two of seven players that can win the Race to Dubai. Also, in the frame are Justin Rose, Shane Lowry, Louis Oosthuizen, Branden Grace and Byeong-hun An, but McIlroy will be favourite after winning the Dubai event in 2012 and making top-five finishes five years out of six on the Earth course.
“This course plays into the long hitters’ hands,” McIlroy added. “There’s some carries that if you can carry the ball sort of 300 off the tee, you can really shorten some of the par 4s and it gives you a big advantage on the par 5s.”
(Reporting by Matt Smith Editing by Rob Hodgetts)