Rory McIlroy two off the lead despite struggles at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic

Four-time major winner on the shoulder of the leading trio at the halfway mark of extended event

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It says a lot about both Rory McIlroy’s golfing capacity and his comfort around Emirates Golf Club that, in his own words, his game has been sloppy for two rounds and yet he sits two off the lead at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic halfway point.

The world No 1, a two-time winner of the tournament, was not quite at his best in front of huge galleries on Saturday, when he struggled to find the Majlis Course fairways.

By his own reckoning, McIlroy located only two, which in part contributed to his 2-under par 70. But there he is, in a tie for fifth on 8-under for the tournament. The trio at the summit – Thomas Pieters, Richard Bland and amateur Michael Thorbjornsen – will no doubt have noticed the four-time major champion lurking nearby.

“It's nice when you're not feeling on your game you have a short game to sort of bail you out,” McIlroy said afterwards. “I think that's the reason why I'm still not too far away from the lead.”

He usually isn’t around this place, anyway. McIlroy’s long affiliation with the Classic is well documented: he first played the event on invite as an amateur, aged 16 in 2006, and registered his first professional victory there three years later.

There was the other triumph, in 2015, part of a run that reads nine top-10s from his past nine appearances.

So, really, if anyone can get away with a little sloppiness, it’s him.

“More of the same, really,” said McIlroy when asked to compare his opening two rounds. “I think I only hit two fairways today. When you can't hit fairways around here, and the rough is quite thick, it's very hard to have any control of your ball and get it close into par 4s.

“Yeah, just a little rusty. Need to go do a little work.”

There were highlights, though. Like the second from the rough on the par-5 third that set up a strong chance for eagle, even if ultimately it provided McIlroy’s solitary birdie of the day.

The best moment arrived on another long hole, when McIlroy this time did roll in his putt for eagle. It made up for his only dropped shot, which came directly after the turn, on the par-5 10th and via the desert.

“I chipped and putted it well, and I sort of got myself around the golf course OK, being able to post a couple of decent scores and at least have a chance going into the last two days,” McIlroy said.

“But definitely more negatives than positives and need to go and figure it out on the range.”

Given the several rain delays this week, McIlroy has more time to figure it out than he usually would have come Saturday night.

For the first time in its 34-year history, the Classic extends to Monday, meaning those McIlroy-mad fans still have another 36 holes worth of the star attraction to enjoy.

The five-day event, and the weather-induced uncertainty that accompanied Thursday and Friday, could have made the week feel more of a chore for the competitors.

Not for McIlroy. “I’m glad that they went to a Monday,” he said. “It's good that all the field get an opportunity to play 72 holes.

“I think it's a good thing. It's such a big event [one of five on the DP World Tour’s elevated Rolex Series] I think now the discrepancy between these big events on tour and then the lesser ones, that fourth day could mean a lot to someone in terms of changing the course of their year or the course of their career.

“Obviously happy we are playing 72, and it's not as if people have to go that far. Most of the guys are going to Ras Al Khaimah [for next week’s RAK Championship], a few guys are going to Saudi [for the Saudi International, the Asian Tour’s flagship event], so we're not having to go anywhere else.

“Everyone can sort of still get to their destinations on Monday night. Thankfully for me, there's two more rounds.”

Updated: January 29, 2023, 5:15 AM