DUBAI // When Rory McIlroy bogeyed the second hole in the second round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic yesterday, his two-stroke overnight lead rapidly became a four-shot deficit behind Thomas Aiken.
McIlroy, a steadily maturing 21, shrugged off that early decline in fortunes to ensure that his quest for a second title in three years on one of his favourite courses remained on track.
The Northern Irishman slowly but surely hunted down South Africa's Aiken to draw level with a birdie at the 15th and then regain the lead with a birdie at the final hole.
McIlroy, who also has a revitalised Sergio Garcia one shot in arrears going into today's third round, rated his four-under-par score of 68 more highly than his 65.
"After the start I had I was really pleased with the way I hung in there and stayed patient," he said, endorsing his new less-cavalier approach to his profession.
"To be five under from the seventh onwards in the worst of the weather was really satisfying and it sets me up nicely for a good weekend."
McIlroy resisted the temptation to go for what he called "a big three" at the last when he knew he could get there. A cautious lay-up and a wedge to 10 feet set up the birdie he needed to move back to the top of the leaderboard.
The youngster intends to stay there.
"I can draw from my memories of 2009," he said, recalling the front-running manner of his only previous victory on the European Tour. "It's a course I feel comfortable on, so why not?"
McIlroy was pleased to see Garcia emerge as his principal challenger with Aiken and he will be grateful for the four-shot cushion he has on a resurgent Tiger Woods, who is in a five-way tie for fifth place, a shot behind England's Steve Webster who carded a second 68 to get to eight under par.
Garcia is a Spanish equivalent of Woods at the moment as he, too, fights to restore his game to former glories. Like Woods, Garcia is moving purposefully in the right direction here and, like Woods, he is aware of the danger of thinking his problems are over.
"I've definitely hit the ball much better here than of late and it's been pretty good so far," said Garcia, who has dropped from second in the world rankings to 79th after an alarming loss of form and confidence.
Garcia, whose Achilles heel has been a recurring failure to knock in the four-footers that his rivals rarely miss, was proud to have kept a bogey off his card for the first two days.
He has adopted a completely different grip on his putter and is pleased with the improvement. "I know I'm going to miss putts that I should make," he said, "but the important thing is to know that even though I have missed, I have hit a good putt.
"So at the moment that part of my game feels great and I'm loving every minute of it. I've just got to keep going with it."
Aiken's golf has been as solid as anybody's in the new season and he continued in the form which has enabled him to secure six top-20 finishes in his last seven outings by repeating his first-round score of 67 to set a challenging clubhouse target of 10 under par.
"I've been pretty consistent for the last two years," he said. "I feel like I have been regularly putting myself in a position to win tournaments but just not getting it done at the weekend."
He hopes to change that over the next two days to secure a first European Tour title to go with the seven he has notched on his home Sunshine Tour.
"If I keep putting myself in these positions it's inevitable that something [positive] will happen soon," said Aiken, who has pledged not to cut his hair until he has captured that elusive first prize.
Aiken, who has bogeyed only one hole of his 36 so far, was brimming with confidence about his prospects, despite putting himself through a punishing schedule over the last few weeks.
"From tee to green I did everything right and ended up making a few putts," he said. "So I guess that's the way golf is supposed to be played."