DUBAI // For a brief time on Thursday, those who had set their alarm clocks slightly earlier then usual were treated to some vintage Rory McIlroy.
Patently, at age 24, the canon marked “classic” does not stretch too far into the past, but cast the mind back merely 12 months, to the last time the Northern Irishman ploughed through the Earth Course, and you would have found familiar fare to what he served up here.
Having clinched last year’s DP World Tour Championship title with a five-hole birdie blitz, McIlroy picked up where he left off. He reeled off three birdies in his opening four holes – the fastest start of the tournament’s 56 players – and seemed set to sign off this season’s damp squib by partying like 2012.
Yet three-under after four holes soon became two-under after eight, before a run of nine pars concluded with a bogey on 18, to leave McIlroy, already, with some serious catching-up to do. Understandably, he was frustrated.
“Walking off the course with a score in the 60s would’ve felt much better, but walking off with a 71, I’m a little disappointed in that,” he said.
The stretch between 14 and 16 contributed significantly to his mood. Standing on all three greens, McIlroy would have envisioned moving to the next hole with another birdie in the bag, yet the putts did not drop.
It was little pay for some on-the-money ball-striking. Four birdies in a round – he converted a missed eagle opportunity on the par-5 seventh – particularly irks when you are flicking wedges at most flags.
“I feel like I have an advantage around here with my length,” he said. “So if I can take advantage of that, convert chances and just be a little more efficient in my scoring … I’m just not quite there yet.”
It has been a recognisable refrain through 2013. Signs of life have been evident this past month, though, and he will no doubt find a little more bounce in his step around Jumeirah Golf Estates with Caroline Wozniacki in tow.
There has been conjecture regarding whether McIlroy still had the arm of the world No 10 tennis player, but she is in Dubai this week.
“It’s nice,” McIlroy said. “She started pre-season a couple of days ago and was on the court practising at 7am this morning and then came to see me. Great to have her here.”
The couple even found time in the build-up to this event to enjoy a practice round together at the nearby Els Club. Wozniacki’s game, it appears, is in much the same state as her double-major-champion boyfriend.
“Let’s just say it’s a work in progress,” she said.
McIlroy will return Friday intent on recording some improvement. Chiefly, the putter needs to heat up.
“You can hit the ball as well as you want, but if it ends up a 71 it’s not so good,” he said. “I’ve just got to take more chances that I’m giving myself. I know there’s a low score out there.”