McIlroy takes route 66 to lie one shot behind
So much for a meaningless event. The theory that Rory McIlroy’s claiming of the European Tour’s money list before he arrived at the Dubai World Championship would render this tournament irrelevant was unpicked by the man himself. The world number one carded a first round 66 to lie one shot adrift of the leader, Luke Donald.
McIlroy’s only awkward spells arrived as his day was drawing to a close. He hit his tee shot on the 18th into water, scrambling par from there, before an even more embarrassing few moments as McIlroy’s girlfriend, the tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, took the microphone at his post-round press conference.
Wozniacki’s mischief – and red face – making went thus: “If you win this week, am I going to get a really nice Christmas present? And what am I going to get?” A brief exchange followed. “I have been looking,” McIlroy said.
“I don’t think it would take winning this week to buy you a nice present. I think you’ll get a nice present anyway.”
To his credit, McIlroy had shown on the Earth Course that there is nothing lacking from his professional approach. He played the back nine in a mere 31 strokes.
The Northern Irishman’s claim that he wanted to depart this Emirate state with two trophies, rather than solely the one marking his Race to Dubai win, obviously didn’t represent empty words.
“I have come here two out of three times with a chance of winning the Race to Dubai, so there was still a lot to play for,” he explained.
“But this year, having it wrapped up means I can go out and play without thinking about it. I still have a lot of motivation, I want to try and win this tournament, I want to finish a great season in great style.”
McIlroy was outscored, though, by the man he succeeded as the leading money winner in both Europe and the United States. Donald won last week in Japan, returning him to number two in the world. Key to that form, as ever, is Donald’s putting; he came to Dubai having holed 484 from his last 485 putts from 3ft or less.
“I feel like I’m at the peak of my career and I’m excited to be playing golf,” Donald said. “You always feel different the week after winning, you have that little extra pep in your step and there is extra confidence flowing through you. Winning by five, as I did last week, gave me a huge boost.”
Lee Westwood is among those at five under, alongside Louis Oosthuizen, Richie Ramsay, Martin Kaymer, Pádraig Harrington and Fredrik Andersson Hed.
Westwood took time to expand for the first time on his decision to formally part with his long-time caddie, Billy Foster, who is yet to recover from a serious injury incurred while playing football.
“It was obviously very difficult,” Westwood said. “Billy was bound to be disappointed and we are good mates. We have sort of been in each other’s pockets for five years and have had a lot of good times. It was a tricky telephone call, not one I wanted to make, but I had to.
“I just had to make a professional decision. I don’t have the luxury of being able to wait around for a caddie for however long it may be.”
Ian Poulter, who has enjoyed terrific recent form, could manage no better than level par. Afterwards, the Englishman cited tiredness. Poulter tweeted: “Completely disgusted today, I’ve finally hit the wall, jet lag has hit me for six today. Zero energy on the course, very sloppy mistakes.”
Harrington was performing metaphorical handstands after shooting a five-under-par 67 despite frittering away a host of birdie chances in the opening round.
The triple major winner found the Greg Norman-designed Earth layout a fearsome opponent in practice earlier this week and he was delighted to tame the course once the action started for real.
“I shot 67 doing handstands today,” Harrington said.
“Sometimes you do that when your expectations are low.
“Today I wasn’t very confident going into the tournament so anything was going to keep me happy out there and I’m pleased with the score.”
The day started in the Emirate with a tropical downpour first thing in the morning and it was soon raining birdies for Harrington as he picked up six in his round plus a solitary bogey. “It could have been numerous shots better,” said the 41-year-old. “I missed an awful lot of chances.”
Of the other Irish taking part, Peter Lawrie is a shot behind Harrington after shooting a 68, while Michael Hoey had a two under par 70, with Graeme McDowell on level par 72.
Shane Lowry withdrew after going down with a virus that even put him on a drip in hospital for a while.