COMPETITIVE golf, as the great Bobby Jones used to say about the psychology of this mind-mangling game, is played “mainly on a five-and-a-half inch course, the space between your ears.”

Given the way the modern-day game is going, even that particular course has probably been expanded to combat the big-hitters and there will be a chapter on worrying trends in lug-to-lug spans in The R&A’s Distance Insights Report.

Now 32 and beginning his 15th year as a touring player at this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, Rory McIlroy echoed Jones’ sentiments of yore.

“Between the ears,” said the Northern Irishman when asked to pinpoint the area of growth in his game that has come with experience. “Over the years I've learned that when you get to this level, there are so many different ways to swing a golf club and everyone is trying to be somewhat perfect.

“You just have to know what you do well and just try to repeat that. It doesn't have to be absolutely by the book and perfect, but the more optimal you can be between the ears, that's where you're going to pick up shots and that's the difference between winning and losing.”

A new year tends to bring new hope and McIlroy heads into another campaign with plenty of optimism after a post-Ryder Cup resurgence which spawned a 20th PGA Tour win of his career in October.

Last year, McIlroy raised more eyebrows than a Hollywood cosmetic surgeon when he conceded that he’d scuppered his swing trying to emulate Bryson DeChambeau’s eye-popping power hitting. In 2022, accuracy, rather than aggression, will be the watchword.

"I used to sit down on the flight coming here and write down things like, I want to win five times, I want to win a major, I want to win the Race to Dubai, I want to win the FedExCup, I want to do this or that," he said of his ambitions for the season. “And of course I want to do all those things. I'd love to win six times in a season. I've never done that before. I've won five.

“But I think the biggest thing is that I want to hit over 60 per cent of my fairways. I want my proximity inside 150 yards to be a certain number.

“I want my strokes gained on putting to be a certain number. These are goals that I'm in control of.”

Taking a leaf out of the book of Tiger Woods, who would combine mighty attacking gusto with the considered plotting of a cartographer, McIlroy hopes a more measured approach can lead to more success and a first major title since 2014.

"I'll certainly pick and choose my spots where I can take advantage of the driver,” he added. “The best player of the last 30 years, Tiger, would pick and choose where he hit driver and he played a very, very controlled game. It didn't work out too badly for him.”

This week’s star-studded, $8m bonanza is the true launch of the rebranded European Tour, which is now known as the DP World Tour. At a time when Saudi Arabian investment, and proposals of a multi-million-pound super league, is threatening to splinter the established circuits, McIlroy insists the status quo will prevail.

“Honestly, I don’t think it [the European Tour] has ever been in a healthier position,” he said. “I think the alliance with the PGA Tour is massive. The tournaments are getting bigger, sponsorship dollars are coming in to support events. It’s in a really good spot.”

McIlroy has played the Abu Dhabi event 11 times and has four second place finishes and a quartet of other podium placings without getting over the winning line. This week’s staging is being held at the Yas Links course for the first time. “Maybe a change of golf course is what’s needed for me to win the thing,” McIlroy said with a wry smile.

Talking of smiles, Oban’s Robert MacIntyre, one of 11 Scots in action this week, is hoping a beam on his fizzog can bring more shimmering results. “If I can play with a smile on my face, then I can be a dangerous man,” said the lefty. “It’s about enjoying myself and ignoring everything around the golf. I just love playing it.”