Rory McIlroy digs deep to stay afloat in rain-delayed Dubai Desert Classic

Pádraig Harrington has woeful day, dead last at eight over after 13 holes

Rory McIlroy had one of those days where he was required to dig deep to stay afloat. Unseasonably heavy rain caused a more than six hours delay to the start of the Hero Dubai Desert Classic, with the result that only a handful of players – among them Tom McKibbin – managed to complete their first rounds before play was suspended due to darkness.

And while Thomas Pieters navigated his way to the top of the leaderboard (five-under through 15 holes), it was a case of steadying a rocky ship early on for world number one McIlroy who, after starting with a birdie on the Par 5 10th, then suffered bogeys on the 12th and 15th – caused by poor driving and compounded by poor iron play – which had him struggling to find any rhythm.

However, McIlroy, playing for the first time this year, made a good par save on the 17th that seemed to fire him up and then got up and down from a bunker on the 18th for a birdie that got him moving in the right direction.

Back-to-back birdies on the second (from nine feet) and the Par 5 third hole moved McIlroy to two-under-par and inside the top-15. McIlroy was had hit his tee-shot on the Par 3 16th to four feet when the siren sounded to bring a halt to play, with that birdie putt left facing him on the resumption of play.


McKibbin, at one point, moved into contention with a brilliant run of four straight birdies. Another product of Holywood Golf Club, the 20-year-old birdied the 18th to get the run going and then birdied the first (35 feet), second (12 feet) and third (38 feet) only for all that work to be cruelly undone with three straight bogeys on the fourth, fifth and sixth holes and a triple-bogey seven on the eighth hole after a wild drive down the right into bushes. McKibbin, playing on a sponsor’s invitation, ultimately signed for an opening round 74.

For Pádraig Harrington, who brought the momentum of a fourth-placed finish in the Abu Dhabi Championship with him, there was only a day of woe: the Dubliner was eight-over par on this round through 13 holes before the siren, in his case, brought some relief.

Pieters felt some changes to the course set-up due to the weather made for a fairer challenge. “Obviously they guarded against some of the conditions and moved a few tees forward, like on 12, where you normally are hitting long irons and [instead] you’re hitting short wedges. If you found the fairway and had ball-in-hand, it was definitely playable,” admitted the Belgian, who had six birdies and one bogey in the 15 holes he managed to complete.

He added: “It was tough to judge because the wind was switching the whole day, I thought, definitely tricky.”

Three English players – Daniel Gavins, Matthew Jordan and Oliver Wilson – completed all 18 holes, signing for four-under-par 68s to set the clubhouse target, while Victor Perez, Patrick Reed and Tommy Fleetwood were also on four-under when fading light called a halt to their rounds.

Gavins bounced back from a missed cut in Abu Dhabi last week. “Last week I was feeling it was a bit of a waste missing the cut but, if you think it’s just the start of the year, [you’ve] got another 30-odd events if I want them, so I’m not trying to think, yeah [these Rolex Series events], it’s massive points. I’m just trying to play week-in, week-out and see where we are,” said Gavins, whose only European Tour win came in the ISPS Handa World Invitational at Galgorm Castle in 2021.

Jordan, a graduate of the Challenge Tour, is seeking his first win on the main circuit and put together a fine round of five birdies and one bogey. “It’s certainly strange to see water hazards and stuff in places that you don’t expect to be there whatsoever,” he remarked.

Shane Lowry was among the second wave of players who never got to start their opening rounds.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times