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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Rory McIlroy 'ahead of schedule' and in contention at Omega Dubai Desert Classic

After a fine showing in Abu Dhabi last week, the Northern Irishman has carried his form to Emirates Golf Club.

Rory McIlroy shot a bogey-free 65 in his opening round at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on Thursday. Mahmoud Khaled / EPA
Rory McIlroy shot a bogey-free 65 in his opening round at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on Thursday. Mahmoud Khaled / EPA

Rory McIlroy spoke about having the spring back in his step and then bounded around Emirates Golf Club full of obvious pep.

The early morning conditions helped magnify the mood, since the Northern Irishman began his latest crack at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at a crisp 8am on Thursday. The sun not long since up, the weather was agreeable; the company even more so.

McIlroy, a two-time winner of the tournament, went out alongside Sergio Garcia, the defending champion, and Henrik Stenson, another starry name on the event’s stellar roll of honour. All three are good mates. They just happen to be three of the best ball-strikers in golf, too.

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But McIlroy’s typical stripe-show was upstaged somewhat by his form on the Majlis greens. He had 10 one putts on his way to an opening 65. Some were for par, like on his third hole - the 12th - when his drive plugged so badly in a fairway bunker that McIlroy screwed his face when first surveying the situation.

Some rounded off great escapes for birdie, like on his 10th, when he chipped from under the trees and over the bunker. “Absolutely Seve-style”, enthused Ken Brown, the European Tour’s on-course commentator.

Completing the up-and-down for birdie, McIlroy moved to five-under par. He finished the day two better, courtesy of seven birdies in his opening 13 holes. For the third time in five rounds spanning Abu Dhabi and Dubai, he went bogey-free. Little wonder the bounce is back.

“There's so many chances out here that I knew if I got into a rhythm that some would fall,” McIlroy said. “I feel I left a few out there, but the end of the day, 65, you're not going to complain about that.

“I don't think you could have got better conditions out there. The greens in the morning are perfect and there wasn't much wind for probably the first 12 or 13 holes. So you needed to take advantage of it. Thankfully I was able to do that.”

Able body, able mind. McIlroy’s first round in Dubai marked the outset of his second tournament following a lay-off dating back almost four months. A rib injury hampered his hopes last year, curtailing his campaign in October.

So 2017 was uncharacteristically barren. McIlroy concluded the calendar year without a title for the first time since 2008, a spell that precipitated his fall to world No 11. Twelve months ago, he sat second.

Keep up this kind of play, though, and another assault at the summit looks likely. Even by his lofty standards, the past week’s work suggests he is a bit further on than expected.

“Yeah, I am,” McIlroy said. “I didn't expect to play as well as I did last week, and it's been nice to continue that into this week. I'm ahead of schedule right now, but I don't mind that. That's nice. Just have to reassess everything and go from there.”

He goes into Round 2 two shots off early leader David Horsey. But, then, his promising position is perhaps to be anticipated, despite the recent return to golf.

McIlroy has history at the Classic, the scene of his first European Tour victory, back in 2009. Three years ago, he added a second Dallah trophy. In his past seven appearances, he has never finished outside the top 10. Nevertheless, there’s always room for improvement.

“It was nice to get off to a good start and put yourself right in contention in the tournament straight away,” said McIlroy, who opened with 69 in Abu Dhabi a week previously. “That's honestly one of my goals this year. I feel like I started off last year sort of 71, 70, instead of getting right into the thick of things from the start. So it's been nice to start the last couple weeks like that.”

All in all, as his gait conveys, he is in a much happier place than October.

“Yeah, it's a big difference,” McIlroy said. “I was not just down in the dumps because I was excited about the process of trying to get my body and my game better. But not being able to play to my best last year was something that I was very frustrated with.

“But from then until now, it’s completely different. I'm really happy with where my body is, where my game is and this is just a progression of what I've seen over the past couple of months, which has been nice.”