SEOUL: Troubled former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy admitted he was “seeking solace” as he prepared to begin a lucrative three-week Asian swing at the Kolon Korea Open on Thursday.
McIlroy competes at the $1 million OneAsia Tour event at Woo Jeong Hills Country Club, south of Seoul, having taken a month off since failing to qualify for the USPGA Tour Championship.
But his break from playing has coincided with an acrimonious split from his management company and rumors abounding in the British and Irish press of the end of his relationship with long-term girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki.
The rumors were denied by the tennis player in a Danish newspaper on Tuesday, and were subject of a sharp response from McIlroy in Korea: “My private life is private. I’d like to keep it that way.”
So the soft-spoken Northern Irishman can be forgiven for getting as far away from it all as possible over the coming weeks in places where he has good memories.
“I’m just happy to be back on the golf course and doing what I do best. It’s a nice place for a little bit of solace,” McIlroy said at a press conference on Tuesday.
McIlroy tied for third at the Korea Open in 2009, and was the runner-up in 2011 to American Rickie Fowler.
“I’ve played good golf here before, but I haven’t played quite well enough to win,” he said.
With no opponents of Fowler’s calibre this week, McIlroy fancies his chances despite his poor form—he has only recorded one top 10 finish in his last 10 starts. “Hopefully, it will be the third time lucky for me,” he said.
McIlroy’s main focus will surely be to use the event to get back some form and confidence for the bigger prizes ahead as he moves on next week to China for Shanghai’s $7 million BMW Masters, where he was runner-up last year.
His hectic schedule will squeeze in another million-dollar payday in an exhibition match against Tiger Woods at Mission Hills on the southern island of Hainan, before he flies the 1,700 kilometres (1,100 miles) back to Shanghai for the WGC-HSBC Champions, an event carrying an $8.5 million prize fund.
McIlroy swept all before him last year, but has yet to win in 2013, tumbling to six in the world.
He refused to put his loss of form down to the much publicized switch to Nike clubs—worth a reported $20 million a year—and claimed it was more down to poor swing mechanics.
“I developed a couple of bad habits,” he said. “I wasn’t playing as well as I wanted, and that obviously dents your confidence a little bit. It definitely had nothing to do with equipment.”
The par-72 6,591-metre (7,208-yard) Woo Jeong Hills layout has been described as “close as you can find in Asia to a big, brutish US tournament course” by one golf website—and that could suit the big-hitting McIlroy if he can get in the groove.
Only five players broke par in last year’s event, with Kim Dae-sub claiming his third national open title — but only the first as a professional—with a five-under total of 279.
If McIlroy doesn’t emerge victorious there’s good chance it will be a player called Kim, Lee or Park. Of the 114-man field, 55 golfers carry one of those names.