Rory McIlroy begins busy Masters prep in Abu Dhabi, itching for a win

Rory McIlroy has 13 PGA Tour victories in his career. But he suffered a winless 2017. Andrew Redington / Getty

Imagine if during Tiger Woods' prime he went three full years without winning a major championship.

From the time he won his first major title at the 1997 Masters to his 14th at the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods never went a stretch of more than 10 majors without winning one of the game's four biggest tournaments.

His two longest "streaks" were 10 majors from the time he won his first until he won again at the 1999 PGA Championship and 10 after he won the 2002 U.S. Open until he won the 2005 Masters. He packed those 14 majors into a period of just over 11 years.

As Rory McIlroy's 2018 season begins this week in Abu Dhabi, he has gone 12 majors without a victory (playing in 11 of them), having won the last two he played in 2014. At the time, he was 25 years old, and while any comparisons to Woods were always going to be unfair, he was certainly on a pace that suggested the possibility of double-digit major wins.

And given his talent and the effortless way in which he seemingly launches his drives, who would doubt him?

More than three years later, McIlroy is looking for a restart after an injury-plagued season saw him go winless and drop out of the top 10 in the world. Now 28 years old, McIlroy has a heavy schedule leading to the Masters that begins this week in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, a European Tour event.

"I'd love to win again,'' McIlroy told reporters in Abu Dhabi. "I don't think there's any better feeling than winning a golf tournament. But I don't feel like that's far away. I've practiced and played. Obviously not competitively in a proper tournament, but I've shot some really good scores over the past few weeks. It's different doing that to being out here on Thursday and really having a card in your hand.''

McIlroy admitted he was going through the motions during the latter part of the season, knowing that a rib injury that twice sidelined him was not completely healed and that his preparation had been poor.

He decided to get fit and healthy and hasn't played in a tournament since early October.

Not to say that McIlroy has fallen way off. He has four victories on the PGA Tour since winning the 2014 PGA Championship, including the 2016 Tour Championship and FedEx Cup. He also won three tournaments on the European Tour.

And in the 11 majors he has played since winning at Valhalla (he missed the 2015 Open with an ankle injury suffered playing soccer when he was playing at a high level), he has six top-10s. The goal is to be ready for the Masters, where he will attempt to complete the career Grand Slam, while also perhaps knocking off a win or two along the way. After playing two tournaments in the Middle East, McIlroy's schedule includes the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Genesis Open, Honda Classic, Valspar Championship, Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Dell Technologies Match Play.

"It would be ideal to win one of these next eight events or whatever,'' he said. "Hopefully not just one. It would be great for my confidence going into Augusta. It's been what 14, 15, 16 months since I've won, so I'd like to get back in the winner's circle as soon as possible.''

Speaking of Tiger . . .

McIlroy told The Telegraph about a round of golf he played with Woods last fall at The Bear's Club near their homes in Jupiter, Florida. This was before Woods' surprisingly successful return at the Hero World Challenge, where he shot in the 60s in three of the four rounds and tied for ninth.

At the time, Woods had been playing and practicing for a little over a month following April back surgery. And McIlroy was unsure of what to expect.

"I was on my way there worrying thinking, 'What will I see?' But it was incredible,'' McIlroy said. "My dad [Gerry] also played with us, and we both couldn't believe it. I remember mouthing to Dad, 'WTF?' And on the drive home afterwards, we said, 'Where the hell did that come from?' Tiger was that good; playing every shot, not having to hold back.''

Woods will play his first official full-field tour event in nearly a year when he tees it up next week at the Farmers Insurance Open. Woods missed the cut there last year, didn't play in 2016, withdrew in 2015 and in 2014 tied for 80th, missing the 54-hole cut. So while he has won the tournament seven times (and also the 2008 U.S. Open on the same course, Torrey Pines), these past three outings are proof that past success means little if your game isn't there.

If nothing else, the tournament will provide an excellent gauge for Woods in his comeback.

And returning this week ...

Phil Mickelson. Lefty makes his 2018 debut (he played the Safeway Open, where he tied for third, and the WGC-HSBC Championship in China, where he tied for 15th in two previous starts this season) at this week's Career Builder Challenge, the first of five straight tournaments that will continue with the Farmers Insurance Open, Waste Management Phoenix Open, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Genesis Open.

Mickelson, 47, has elected to go with his brother, Tim, as his full-time caddie, and it was interesting how he framed the decision.

"This is a big year, a Ryder Cup year, and I'm really looking forward to 2018,'' he said when describing the comfort level he had found with Tim after parting ways with Jim Mackay last summer after 25 years.

Mickelson will be 48 when the Ryder Cup rolls around in September. He has made every U.S. Ryder Cup team dating to his first in 1995. Can he do it again? It it is a big goal, but he'll have his work cut out.

While it is extremely early in the points race with the majors, Players and WGC events worth more, there were points awarded in 2017, and Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler hold prominent spots in the top eight. So does U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, who also currently sits in an automatic qualifying position (top eight) for the 12-man team.

Mickelson is 27th and has plenty of time to make up ground, but how high does he need to climb to get a pick from captain Jim Furyk if he doesn't make it on his own?

Patrick Reed, Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson, Brandt Snedeker and Daniel Berger are just a handful of the names ahead of Mickelson and also dearly wanting to be part of the team. It will be one of the big storylines throughout the year.

Dream start ...

Patton Kizzire became the first player to win twice this season on the PGA Tour, and his triumph Sunday in a playoff over James Hahn at the Sony Open puts him in excellent shape for the rest of the year as it relates to the FedEx Cup playoffs.

His total of 1,213 points leads the list in the very early stages, but that total would have been just outside of the top 35 heading into the Tour Championship last fall. That means, with any level of success, Kizzire is in excellent shape to make the 30-player field at East Lake, thus earning his way into three of the four major championships in 2019.