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Two (small) areas of improvement Rory McIlroy is targeting this year

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Even though Rory McIlroy is now 15 months removed from his last victory, he isn’t panicking. He isn’t, as he said, “trying to reinvent the wheel in any way.” He’s just eyeing small improvements that should lead to bigger gains.

And so Wednesday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, McIlroy shared two of his performance-related goals on the eve of his first start of the new year.

His first area of improvement: Proximity from the rough.

As he explained: “It’s sort of random, but I hit 60% of fairways, so that means 40% of the time I’m hitting out of the rough, which is quite a lot. And my performance out of the rough last year was way down than what it was the previous year.”

Full-field tee times from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

This was true. In four starts this Tour season (which began last fall), McIlroy is ranked 250th in proximity to the hole from the rough, at an average of 61 feet. During the 2019-20 season, he was 153rd, at 46 feet. That was well below where he’s been the past few years, including in 2019 – when he was named PGA Tour Player of the Year – when he ranked 23rd (41 feet).

So how do you address that? “It’s hard,” he said, “because who goes and drops a bag of practice balls in the rough and starts hitting shots in the rough? You go to the range and hit off a perfectly manicured piece of turf, and that’s nice, but that’s not what you’re always doing on the golf course.”

But that deficiency is somewhat correlated to another small area of improvement he’s targeting: Putting from 4 to 8 feet. That, too, “wasn’t quite as good as it was the previous year.”

Rory McIlroy hoping 2021 is finally his year in Abu Dhabi

Rory McIlroy hoping 2021 is finally his year in Abu Dhabi

Indeed, his rank from that range during the 2018-19 season: 14th (73% putts made).

But during the 2019-20 season: 148th (64% made). That was his worst conversion rate since 2011.

“Just little things like that,” he said. “Just sort of performance goals and goals that if I practice the right way, and if I get those right, then it will sort of be a knock-on effect and help everything else.”

McIlroy has historically been a strong starter, with 11 career top-5s in his opening event of the year – but never a victory. He tees off in Abu Dhabi at 10:30 p.m. ET Wednesday alongside Justin Thomas and Lee Westwood.