It speaks to Rory McIlroy’s immense talent that he sparkled on Friday with a bogey-free 66 at the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic and still felt it could have been better.
Much better, in fact.
“Could have been way lower,” McIlroy said immediately following his scintillating second round. “I certainly hit the ball good enough for it to be a few shots lower. I missed a few opportunities.
“But with the way these new greens are, they get a bit chewed up in the afternoons and start to wiggle a little bit if there's not a lot of speed on them — but they are pretty quick as well.
“So, I certainly hit the ball as good as I've done in a long time, and it could have been a few better. But 66 this afternoon is a good score and sets me up for a nice weekend.”
It sure does. In the end, McIlroy’s 6-under score vaulted him through the leader board, lifting the two-time event winner to 7-under for the tournament and into a tie for fifth. He sits four back from front-runner Justin Harding, who enjoys at the halfway stage a two-shot advantage over second-placed Tyrrell Hatton.
As McIlroy conceded, he should have been considerably closer to the top. The world No 8, champion at Emirates Golf Club in 2009 and 2015, picked up his first shot on Friday on the opening hole, but let slip sizeable birdie opportunities on the next two — he drove the green on the par-4 2nd — and the 8th.
However, McIlroy book ended his back nine with birdies, either side of a superb chip-in for eagle on the par-5 13th. Having headed straight for the range following Thursday's 71, evidently work had paid off for the four-time major champion.
“A little bit,” McIlroy said. “Golf is sort of a game of opposites: the more you try to get the club out in front of you on the way back, it wants to try to get behind you on the way down. I've been trying so hard to keep the club in front of me, that it started to get behind me coming down. I thought I hit my irons a lot better today and was in control of the driver a bit better, too.”
Asked how the feeling coming into this season compared to the same stage last year, McIlroy said: “With how I ended last year, I certainly found something. Got a bit of momentum. Won on the PGA Tour [October’s The CJ Cup], had a really good chance to win here in Dubai at the end of last season.”
“It feels good. There's so many ebbs and flows in this game, and the career is so long, that it's hard to compare one year to the next and how you're feeling and how you're hitting it.
“But looking back on my last 12, 14 years, or whatever it's been, the body of work is there, and I've played well and I haven't felt so good and I played poorly when I felt really good. It's just a matter of keep showing up each and every day and try to putt the lowest score possible on the scorecard and move on.”
Like McIlroy, Hatton was moving only up on Friday. The Englishman, seeking a record fifth Rolex Series victory, matched his Ryder Cup teammate’s 66, even if he began the day with a bogey.
Never fear, for Hatton quickly reeled off four consecutive birdies before adding another three in the first five holes on the back nine. The chip-in for three on the par-4 14th, after a wayward drive and forced recovery, underlined a golfer very much on form.
“It would be pretty special to win this tournament,” said Hatton, who finished third in Dubai in 2017 and 2018. “I remember when I was at school, waking up early in the morning to start watching it, and it's always been a tournament that growing up I wanted to play in.
“I think this is my eighth time here, and the event has been pretty kind to me with some pretty good finishes over the years. Hoping I can have a strong weekend and add to that.”
At the midway point, Harding’s the man to catch. The highlight of the South African’s 68 was undoubtedly the lengthy approach from the fairway on the 6th, which pitched beautifully on the green and rolled right into the hole.
Afterwards, Harding labelled it a “bonus”. Even to him, it was more unexpected than it appeared.
“Might be the first time I've ever hit the fairway,” he said. “It's a hole that I bail on over the years. I had a good number, which allowed me to pitch it 10 or 15 [feet] short of hole, and the cameraman actually said, ‘I like it’.
“I thought he was joking. It was just a good swing. Added bonus with going in makes up for a couple other things around the golf course.”
Harding’s work was marred a little by two bogeys in his final four holes, although the world No 122 did birdie the last to set the lead at 11-under.
“At the end of the day, I would have been happy coming in with 9-under to be fair,” said the two-time winner on tour, who finished tied-7th last year in Dubai. “It was a good hard slog. The last couple holes played quite tough with the breeze. Quite happy with the two days’ work.”