A tale of two Irishmen with different stories to relate, as the Race to Dubai dream unravelled for Shane Lowry while Rory McIlroy – conjuring up powers of wizardry – holed out from a greenside bunker on the 18th hole of the first round of the season-ending DP World Tour Championship to narrowly retain his place atop the order of merit standings.
As the quartet of Ian Poulter, Martin Kaymer, Andy Sullivan and Marcus Fraser – none of which can actually win the R2D title – opened with six-under-par 66s to share the first-round lead, McIlroy, seeking back-to-back order of merit titles, stuck to his task gamely on the Earth Course.
The 26-year-old Northern Irishman only hit seven of 14 fairways but was slicker in the area of the game that really mattered when it came to getting the ball in the hole, as he required just 26 putts in an opening round 68, four-under.
“I felt like it was a little struggle at times out there but to produce something like that and obviously the way I finished makes it feel a lot better. I’m very close,” claimed McIlroy.
On two occasions late on his round, McIlroy showed his wizardry: on the Par 3 17th, although on the putting surface, he used his sand wedge to find a way over a vicious hump on the green and salvaged par; and, then, on the finishing Par 5, after finding a fairway bunker off the tee and then putting his approach into a greenside bunker, he holed out for a birdie that enabled him to match playing partner Danny Willett and sign for the same score, a 68, as the two battle it out for the Race to Dubai title.
“It never really looked like a four,” remarked McIlroy of the unlikeliest of birdie finishes, describing his third shot as “terrible”.
Yet, the holed-out bunker shot glossed over that error. “It was one of those ones where you just had to get it out and it could trundle its way towards the hole. It was a bonus to see it drop . . . there was a bit of ugly golf in there. But it’s nice to get around in 68,” said McIlroy, who revealed afterwards that his manager, Sean O’Flaherty, had been in Paris on Friday and only 3km away from the scene of the terrorist attacks in the city.
Indeed, McIlroy had etched on a drawing of the Eiffel Tower on to his Nike cap for this week’s tournament in a show of solidarity with the victims of the attacks.
McIlroy – who went into the season-ending Tour Championship with a narrow 1,614 points lead in the R2D over Willett – said: “All through the year it has been the putter that held me back, I feel like the putter has done well. That bodes well for the next three days.”
If McIlroy stayed very much in contention, in both the tournament itself and the Race to Dubai title quest, it proved to be a very frustrating opening round for Lowry, whose struggles with the putter in hand continued. The Offalyman – fourth in the standings heading into the final tournament of the season – hit only six of 14 fairways and required 30 putts. Even his short game, such a strong part of his game, proved problematic as he successfully scrambled just four of eight times after missing greens.
Lowry signed for a three-over 75, to lie 54th of the 60-man field. Looking for early momentum, Lowry struggled and covered the front nine in 39 with three bogeys and six pars. Lowry managed a first birdie of the round on the 10th, only to double bogey the 12th, and he had a bogey on the 16th sandwiched in between birdies on the 15th and 17th of an eventful round.
The WGC-Bridgestone champion wasn't alone in failing to make any inroads on McIlroy or Willett in that quest for the order of merit top spot: neither Lowry nor the other four players – Branden Grace, Ben An, Justin Rose or Louis Oosthuzien – still in with a mathematical chance of overhauling the two frontrunners made any real impression.