DUBAI // Chasing a second successive Omega Dubai Desert Classic and the chance to move alongside Ernie Els as its only other three-time winner, it felt rather appropriate that Rory McIlroy concluded Thursday nestled beside the "Big Easy" on the leaderboard.
To be fair, the round was anything but simple to describe.
Having begun early in the morning with bogey on the par-5 10th, when he took two to escape the greenside bunker, McIlroy responded with three birdies on what was his front nine, including a four on the 18th despite driving his ball through the fairway and into the water.
Another dropped shot came on the typically straightforward second, but that was only because McIlroy attempted to thump his drive “absolutely out of my boots” and smashed it far left instead. Yet he simply resolved to birdie three of the next four holes.
When all was said and done, his four-under-par 68, matched by Els much later that afternoon and two shy of the day’s best score, equated to a decent foundation for the rest of the week. McIlroy conceded as much afterwards.
“I thought I did really well, considering the start and having some of the shots I hit throughout the round,” he said. “Sixty-eight was probably a fair reflection of how I played.”
It did not tell anywhere near the full story, though. After opening with what he described as a “good six”, McIlroy exhibited his trademark high-quality ball-striking, first at the par-5 13th when he cut a 217-yard 4-iron around a tree and approximately 20 yards to eventually snaffle an opening birdie. Little wonder he shared a laugh with caddie JP Fitzgerald once his long approach had found the green.
“Of all the shots I hit, that was probably the best, just to get the round going,” McIlroy said. “It couldn’t have come at a better time.”
So, too, the 6-iron from 196 yards on 18. Granted, McIlroy did not expect his driver to bring into play the water that runs along the right-hand side of the hole, but the fairways on the Majlis have been firmed up considerably this year. It therefore requires a little adjustment, something McIlroy referenced post-round.
“The way they cut that tee shot now it takes driver out of my hands and probably driver out of a lot of people’s hands,” he said. “As complimentary as I have been about the changes to the course, that’s probably one that I’m a little ... that probably isn’t great.”
If somewhat disgruntled at the time, it did not last long.
“I actually said to JP before I hit my third ‘this would be a great birdie’,” McIlroy said. “Was able to do that.”
No dramas, then. As world No 2 and a four-time major champion, McIlroy obviously enjoys providing the theatre, which he nearly managed at the typically tough 6th.
Standing 191 yards back and with 7-iron in hand, his second shot cozied tight to the cup, about an inch away from dropping for eagle. Not that McIlroy initially realised as much.
“I didn’t know,” he said. “It was funny, when I hit it and when it pitched there was quite a long time between that and the crowd reaction, so I thought it must’ve been close. I didn’t think it was going to be quite that close, but any time you walk away with a three on that hole is a bonus.”
Tidy up in some areas, as he reflected after signing his scorecard, and a significant bonus could arrive Sunday. McIlroy ended the evening only a couple behind leader Alex Noren, although there were four guys sandwiched between on five-under. Ominously for the rest, however, the defending champion’s game feels dialled in already.
“I hit quite a lot of nice iron shots,” McIlroy said. “As long as I can put the ball on the fairway for the rest of the week, then it bodes well.”
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