Rory McIlroy brought the X-factor – a birdie-eagle-birdie finish to complete his first round, the only three holes of golf he played – while a number of breakaway LIV players gatecrashed the DP World Tour’s party, as the Hero Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Club brought intrigue in the midst of the weather disruption.
For a second day, play was curtailed due to the unseasonal stormy weather, yet the list of characters in the drama played out those of yore: McIlroy, for sure, to the fore after his sensational finish but also Ian Poulter, Patrick Reed and Richard Bland who are only playing on the European circuit pending legal arbitration which is scheduled to take place next month.
[ Rory McIlroy on blanking Patrick Reed: ‘I’m living in reality. I don’t know where he’s living’ ]
When fading light brought play to a close and lays open the prospect of a Monday finish should time not be sufficiently made up over the weekend, it was English duo Poulter and Bland – through three and four holes respectively of their second rounds – who shared the lead int his Rolex Series tournament on eight under par.
McIlroy, though, lurked with intent. He’d marked his ball on Thursday in the knowledge that his first action of his resumed round would be a four-footer for birdie on the seventh, his 16th hole, and he duly made the putt.
What followed, however, saw McIlroy step from the shadows and into the spotlight as he holed-out from 116 yards with a 54-degree wedge for an eagle two on the difficult eighth hole and then closed out with a birdie to sign for a 66, a score that had looked so unlikely for much of his play on Thursday where he struggled with rustiness in many aspects of his game.
“I fought back after some very sloppy, rusty golf over the first 14 holes,” admitted McIlroy of how he managed to keep things together to provide the platform for the three-hole salvo of brilliance that propelled him into the business part of affairs in his quest for a third career win in the tournament. “Quite the bonus,” said McIlroy of being able to scribble his name on to a scorecard of 66.
The most magical moment came on the eighth hole, where his tee-shot finished on the packed desert sand hardened by the recent rainfall. “I wouldn’t say I’m the best fairway bunker player in the world. The desert is a little nicer, a little more packed down, so you get better lies.
“All I was thinking about was catching it clean. My tendency out of those lies is to hit it a little bit heavy. As soon as I struck it, I knew it came out really nicely and it was right down the pin. Again, anything inside of 20 feet, I would have been happy with, so that was certainly a bonus [to hole out],” said McIlroy, who went down the grip of the wedge “to make sure of the strike and I just tried to put a good swing on it.”
McIlroy, playing in his first event of the year after a long winter break, remains number one in the world rankings but with Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm making inroads to the point where either one could conceivably leapfrog him in the coming weeks.
“I’m not really paying attention to the world rankings or anything. I’m just trying to get off to a good start to my year, trying to work on some things in my game and concentrate on myself. I still have some work to do. I didn’t play well at all [on Thursday], so a little bit of rest and some practise over the next 24 hours before I go out and play again,” said McIlroy of his intention to sharpen up.
Shane Lowry was among the second wave of players who hadn’t hit a single shot on Thursday due to the weather disruption and he took time to get into any rhythm in a first round that only really sparked into life as he neared the end, claiming back-to-back birdies on the 17th and 18th holes to sign for an opening 70. Lowry managed to get in five holes of his second round – claiming birdies on the 10th and 14th to go with a bogey on the 12th – to move to three under, in tied-22nd.
Poulter and Bland had a share of the lead when play was called, with Spain’s Angel Hildago – who managed seven holes of his second round – their closest challenge, a shot behind the pair on seven-under.
In his rookie season on the tour, Hildago remarked: “I love the pressure. I think it was Seve [Ballesteros] or Jacques Leglise, I don’t remember who, said, ‘if I don’t feel pressure, I’m playing for nothing’. So, I like the pressure.”