Ian Poulter and Richard Bland lead Dubai Desert Classic, but Rory McIlroy a willing chaser

LIV Golf duo sit on 8-under par at rain-delayed event

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If Rory McIlroy was keen to put behind him all the off-the-course issues that dominated still his stellar 2022 on it, then a glance at the leaderboard in Dubai probably prompted a reflex eye roll.

The world No 1 had already “tee-gate” to contend with this week at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic, the build-up to the season’s second Rolex Series event quickly consumed by an apparent, and easily understandable, beef with Patrick Reed.

The word around the golfing world is that those who defected last year to LIV Golf, of which Reed is one, feel McIlroy has been a little too outspoken when it comes to what many refer to as golf’s “civil war”.

The four-time major winner has pinned his colours to a popular mast, serving not only as the game’s prominent player, but also the lead voice for the traditional tours.

Asked on Wednesday how much the feeling of being mentally drained at the end of last year was down to the “extra-curricular stuff with LIV”, McIlroy replied: “All of it. All of it.”

It’s conceivable, then, by the close of a second successive weather-delayed day at Emirates Golf Club on Friday, McIlroy would have let out an audible sigh.

Not, though, for his score and thus chances of a record-equalling third Classic triumph. McIlroy returned on Friday morning to complete his suspended opening round and played the sort of golf only a world No 1 really can, going birdie-eagle-birdie to sign for a 6-under-par 66. It hoisted the 2009 and 2015 champion to the top of the leaderboard.

Yet it’s the company he keeps. Reed was finishing his first round around the exact same time, and on the exact same score. By the time Friday had finished, McIlroy sat in a tie for fourth alongside Reed and South Africa’s Lucas De Jager, while Ian Poulter and Richard Bland, two fully fledged LIV representatives, shared the summit, on 8-under.

To be fair, unlike McIlroy, the English duo had time to begin their second rounds: Poulter had only just posted 7-under for his first round before squeezing in another three holes before darkness descended on the Majlis Course. Bland, meanwhile, racked up three more birdies through four holes of his second round to augment an opening 67.

Sandwiched in between the pair and McIlroy was young Spaniard Angel Hidalgo, who opened with a 66 and then went another 1-under through three holes of his second.

Maybe in contrast to McIlroy, Hidalgo took great pleasure in surveying the leaderboard.

“Yeah, it was weird,” said the world No 315, whose most notable professional win to date came on the Challenge Tour, at the Big Green Egg German Challenge powered by VcG. “See my surname and [McIlroy's] surname together in the leaderboard was pretty cool.”

Hidalgo, 24, added with a laugh: “That's why I made bogey [on his closing hole of the first round], to be close to him.

"It was something, a good dream when you see him winning majors. We played good today, and maybe why not play with him?”

Playing like McIlroy is a pretty fail-safe way to success. Just take his "wild" 45-minute effort on Friday morning, when he sunk the short birdie putt from overnight, bounced his ball into the hole a 116-yard wedge from the fairway sand on the par-4 8th – his penultimate hole – and landed his approach on the next to four foot for another birdie.

“I wouldn't say I'm the best fairway bunker player in the world,” said McIlroy, with typical understatement. “The desert is a little nicer, it's a little more packed down, so you get some 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.”

Ditto his 66, even if McIlroy wasn't too gushing about how he got there.

"Honestly not very good - I struggled out there most of yesterday," McIlroy said. "I thought did I well to be under par by the end of the day. I fought back after some very sloppy rusty golf over the first 14 holes.

“And then I came out and I don't really know if anything clicked because I don't think I hit enough shots to know. But it was definitely needed.

"I would have been happy with anything around 70 the way I played, and then to come in and shoot 66 is quite the bonus.”

Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, chose to focus on his debut performance at the Classic rather than the earlier McIlroy plotline.

“I'm obviously really happy with the way I played,” the American said after concluding his first round with an eagle on 18. “I felt like last week [missed cut in Abu Dhabi] wasn't really a reflection of all the hard work I've been doing in the off-season. It was more getting rusty on playing tournament golf.

“So to come out this week and feel like I was able to put everything together and to have my mind right on game-planning and course management was definitely a plus. I feel like I had full control of the golf ball and made a couple putts.”

Updated: January 28, 2023, 4:56 AM