For the past 15 years, no one has done more to put bums on seats at the DP World Tour Championship than Rory McIlroy. But Thursday’s opening day of the 2023 tournament was the first time he had put a ball on someone’s lap there.
Of all the 50 players at Jumeirah Golf Estates this week, the only one Lois Miberon Obajulu would be 100 per cent sure of picking out of a line up would be McIlroy.
She is not the most avid golf fan, but was brought along to the championship by her sister, Yemi Keri, who had travelled from Nigeria especially for two reasons. Firstly, to pay a visit to her sister. And, secondly, to see McIlroy in the flesh.
The siblings thought they had a decent chance of getting close to the Northern Irishman when they settled down on the grass beside the 13th green. They ended up far closer than they ever anticipated.
The world No 2 leaked his tee shot right. Yemi saw it coming, and rolled out the way, only for the ball to settle in the lap of her sister.
“We had been waiting on the tee to see them, then his shot landed on her, and I’m like, ‘Wow!’,” Yemi said.
“You could not be any more up close and personal. He is one of my favourite players and that is the reason we are here: just for him.”
Lois froze, just as her sister instructed her to. All, including McIlroy, waited for a referee to come and make a ruling – and free her from being the centre of attention.
McIlroy initially pretended to set up to hit the shot from her lap. The gallery crowded round, filming the moment on their smartphones. And, finally, she was told she could pass the ball to McIlroy then was free to go.
“This is my first experience of golf so I was a little bit shocked and nervous about what happened,” said Lois, who has lived in Dubai for 10 years, and works as a customer services representative for a geo-logistics company.
“I didn’t know what to do. I only realised the ball was there when it was right in front of my face.
"My sister said I had to let it stay in my lap, and when the golfer comes he will pick it up from me. Even then I was still panicked.
“It was my first experience of this, I was a little shaken, thinking, ‘Oh my God'. And there were lots of cameras on my face.
“Rory asked me only one simple question. He said, ‘I hope you are not supposed to be at work today?’, and I’m not. I’ve got the day off.”
The fun did not stop at 13 for McIlroy. The Northern Irishman had one of his most eventful trips around the Earth Course, reflecting after that it was “the sort of round you play after six weeks off”.
He was grateful for a big slice of fortune at 18. Playing his second shot from the bark clippings on the right of the fairway, he fired an iron shot into the creek which snakes down the middle of the last hole. It bounced out, landed on the small footbridge, and spun back to settle on the grass.
It left him with 170 yards to the hole. He curved his approach to the front portion of the green, and two putted for a par that meant he finished on 1-under par.
“It was typical of my career, I think – very lucky,” McIlroy joked. “I got fortunate on those first couple of shots and did well to end up making a five out of it.
“Honestly, I am just happy to get in under par because it was quite scrappy on the back nine.”
Jon Rahm, the defending champion, did not have quite such luck at the last. His second went in the water and stayed there.
The Spaniard ended up with a bogey six, to complete a level par round of 72. It was the first time in the 17 rounds he has played the Earth Course that the three-time champion has failed to break par.
At least the duo have three rounds to make up the arrears on the leaders. After Round 1, there was a three-way tie at the top between Julien Guerrier, Matthieu Pavon and Nicolai Hojgaard, who each carded 5-under-par rounds of 67.