DUBAI // Like a stealthy government operative guarding a diplomat or elected official, Adrian Flaherty quietly spoke into a microphone attached to his necktie as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy walked off their ninth hole of the day.
A couple of thousand fans sauntered by, along with the usual media contingent tracking the exploits of the last two players in golf to be ranked world No 1. Flaherty was trying to lessen the congestion by directing traffic, it was like trying to herd a litter of kittens.
Still, the tournament director of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic had a broad smile on his face as the two biggest names in the event headed off to the back nine. Clearly, he was hearing scoreboard updates on his radio earpiece.
“Game on,” he said, grinning.
The excitement was understandable. Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, multiple major winners and the biggest names in the event, were perched at 1-2 on the leaderboard as they made the turn, and McIlroy only pulled away from there as both the gallery and the field tried to keep up.
Playing on the fifth anniversary and venue where he recorded his first professional victory, McIlroy took another step toward dethroning Woods at the top of the world rankings for the second time, this time in a nose-to-nose grouping.
Up before dawn for an 8am tee time, McIlroy said there is nothing quite as eye-opening as walking to the first tee surrounded by a throng of rabid fans and playing with the reigning world No 1 in your group.
“It sort of makes you more alert at that time of the morning when sometimes you’re half-asleep,” McIlroy said.
It was eyes wide open for everybody when McIlroy finished with a 9-under 63, which was good for a three-shot lead as afternoon play continued in the first round at Emirates Golf Club.
Woods, his new South Florida neighbour, shot 68, and given the number of times he visited the desert off the tee, it was an impressive bit of scrambling.
“We played two totally different games,” Woods said.
That much was evident from the first hole, when Woods yanked his drive into the sandy wilds and McIlroy piped his drive right down the fairway chute.
After his second shot sailed into the rough, Woods somehow scratched out a birdie – his first on a par-5 hole in 13 tries this year.
In contrast, McIlroy looked even better than he did during a runner-up finish two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi.
Defending champion Stephen Gallacher, the third member of the group, shot 66 and could not begin to keep pace with the Northern Irishman, 24, who has seemingly put last year’s skid behind him.
Gallacher’s description of McIlroy’s day: “It was sublime.”
About the only way Woods kept apace of McIlroy was in the small-talk department. Between shots, there was plenty of early week banter.
“Anything and everything,” McIlroy said. “Different sports, different swings.”
As a pair, they had both different swings and different results. McIlroy, who said he feels as comfortable on the Emirates Golf Club grounds as any course on the European Tour circuit, was lopping off huge portions of doglegs with drives carrying 300 yards in the air.
Woods was trying to steer his driver onto any patch of irrigated land.
In fact, as they played the 18th, their ninth hole of the day, Woods found the fairway for the first time all day with a driver that he mis-hit so badly, it came to rest 75 yards behind McIlroy’s tee shot. Somehow, Woods managed to slash and gnash his way around and remain in the top 10, despite hitting only seven fairways and 10 greens.
After a sloppy drive on the 13th, Woods showed the impact mark the ball made on the face of his driver to caddie Joe LaCava. They had to laugh – it missed the sweet spot by a wide margin.
“When I get it right, I hit these bullet cuts that go forever,” Woods said.
Yet he did not have a bogey on the card after shooting 79 last weekend, a testament more to grit and gumption that a well-rounded game.
“He’s experienced,” McIlroy said. “He’s a true pro. He started to hit it a lot better on the back nine.”
By then, McIlroy was in fifth gear and pulling away. Though Woods insisted otherwise, the number he posted was roughly what he deserved. McIlroy, ranked sixth in the world after a mostly forgettable 2013, missed a four-footer on the first hole and could have been two or three shots better. As it was, he missed matching the course record by two shots.
As if his play on Thursday was not daunting enough, McIlroy shot 62 in a casual round at the nearby Els Club a few days ago.
“I wanted to try to shoot two 62s in one week,” McIlroy said, only half-kiddingly. “Wasn’t quite possible; came up one short.”
No question, it was the only shortcoming of the day.