DUBAI // Rory McIlroy resumed where he had left off yesterday on a course close to his heart, the brilliant young Northern Irishman setting himself up for a Dubai Desert Classic double with a battling first-round score of 68 in unusually difficult conditions. McIlroy, who set off here a year ago on the way to what remains his only tournament win with what he described as probably the easiest 64 he had ever made, rated this effort, which put him in a six-way share of the early lead, more highly.
"With the wind blowing the way it was out there I would have settled for anything under 70," said the buoyant defending champion, who declared that he takes added confidence and belief from experiencing a winning feeling on a golf course. "I felt that way a few times as an amateur but this is my first time as a professional," he said. "I've looked at the previous winners of this event and champions tend to make good starts so I'm really pleased that I've been able to do that again.
"It was more of a grind today than when I shot that 64 on the Thursday last year. I had to stay patient, knowing that I had to take my chances when they came. I also avoided making any stupid mistakes which was nice. I do feel comfortable on this golf course." Charl Schwartzel can consider himself to be the highest profile of McIlroy's five co-leaders. The South African celebrated his nomination as the European Tour's outstanding player of last month by opening his February account with another excellent bogey-free performance.
Schwartzel, who has taken a commanding early lead in the second running of the Race to Dubai on the strength of his back-to-back victories in his homeland, refused to be blown off track of a third title by a sandstorm which made low scoring difficult on the formidable Majlis course. Playing solid golf in the worst of the conditions, Schwartzel waited patiently for birdie opportunities and took four of them to post an impressive four-under-par 68.
A delighted Schwartzel said: "I've been coming here since 2003 and this was one of the hardest rounds I've played round the Emirates for a long time. The wind was really blowing and visibility was not great with the sand and dust around. You have to hit the fairways; if you don't you are not going to be scoring." Sweden's Alexander Noren looked like taking the outright lead as he came down the last at five-under par, but a solitary blemish at what for him was the difficult ninth hole left him having to settle for parity with the pace-setting posse.
Considering Noren got to five under by the 12th it was a disappointing finish, but he was not complaining. "It felt easy out there," he reflected, "which is a good sign when the course is playing tough. So I've got to be pleased. "I like playing in this kind of weather." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org