Shot of the year helps Rory McIlroy fly out of blocks in Dubai
Final hole eagle sees McIlroy card a 64 to trail Lorenzo-Vera by one in Tour Championship
Rory McIlroy celebrates with his caddie Niall O’Connor after carding an opening round of 64 in Dubai. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty
Of all the shots Rory McIlroy has hit during the season, one which has already garnered four victories worldwide, he kept one of his best until this European Tour season-ending DP World Tour Championship on The Earth Course in Dubai, a three-wood of 291 yards to set up a closing eagle in a round of eight-under-par 64, which catapulted the Northern Irishman to within a stroke of first round leader Mike Lorenzo-Vera.
“Possibly the best shot I’ve hit all year,” admitted McIlroy, adding: “It was one of those where if you get it right and you button it, (you know) it’s going to be perfect . . . the two shots into the last were right up there with the two best shots I’ve hit this year, I would say. Look, I’m feeling comfortable with my game. I have done for the last while. I felt like (this) was just more of the same of how I’ve been feeling.”
McIlroy’s perfection was on display for large parts of his round, which featured that closing eagle, seven birdies and a lone bogey.
Although he can’t win the Race to Dubai order of merit title, the bid to claim a fifth title of the season - with former Ulster rugby player Niall O’Connor acting as his stand-in caddie as regular bagman Harry Diamond takes time out for paternity leave - is sufficient incentive for McIlroy, who had a hot putter early on, with five birdies in his opening seven holes, and displayed his fortitude with a couple of good par saves, on the 13th and 14th, to keep his round going.
The 3-3-3-3 scorecard for his closing four holes told its own story, that run of birdie-birdie-par-eagle propelling McIlroy onto the heels of leader Lorenzo-Vera. “I hit some really quality shots coming in which gives me a lot of confidence going into the next few days,” said McIlroy, who won on his last appearance, at the WGC-HSBC Champions last month, before taking a two-week break which effectively ruled him out of chasing down Bernd Wiesberger in the order of merit race.
The DP World Tour Championship - with $3 million to the winner - is obviously a clear incentive in its own right, and McIlroy would also like to add another trophy to the cabinet which his wife Erica had built in their home while he was claiming that HSBC title in Shanghai.
“It’s sort of the last room that we’ve been waiting on to get finished in the house . . . I like to have (the trophies) out so in a reflective moment, I can go and have a look at all I’ve achieved on the golf course the last few years. I had not seen them, they were in storage for a year and a half, so just to come back to it, (was) really nice. It’s a nice reflective moment, but it’s also a motivational moment that this is what I can do and I want more of it,” said McIlroy.
Shane Lowry’s play of the 18th was in marked contrast to that of McIlroy, as he put his tee shot into the water hazard that meanders its way up the fairway. It was symptomatic of the Offalyman’s round - a one-over 73 - that got off to a decent start, two-under through eight holes, only for it to fall flat with bogeys on the ninth, 12th and 14th as he ended the day in tied-33rd position.
Lowry, fourth in the order of merit heading into the tournament, would need a solo second (while also requiring Wiesberger to falter) to entertain any chance of topping the Race to Dubai standings come Sunday. Wiesberger, for his part, overcame a nervy start to finish strongly for a two-under-par opening round of 70.
Of the four players capable of catching Wiesberger, Spain’s Jon Rahm - who put his clubs away for six weeks before reappearing in Dubai - fared best: he shot an opening round 66 to claim solo third, a shot ahead of a group including last week’s Nedbank winner Tommy Fleetwood.
“I’m pleased with the way I’m performing. I could tell how rested I was mentally because I never lost patience. I never got down on myself and stayed with that positive attitude. I’m hoping I an keep playing solid and keep it (going) for the next three days,” said Rahm.
Tournament leader Lorenzo-Vero was even hotter on the way home, with a back nine of 30 strokes that included four successive birdies to finish. Yet, his score came as a surprise to him as much as anyone else, as the Frenchman has been suffering from a lung infection since playing in Sun City last week and had only managed four holes in practice. “It was one of those days where you just relax and try to put the ball somewhere and you strike it perfect. You get the lines, and there you go,” he explained.
Collated first round scores in the European Tour DP World Tour Championship (Gbr & Irl unless stated, par 72):
63 Michael Lorenzo-Vera (Fra)
64 Rory McIlroy
66 Jon Rahm (Spa)
67 Tommy Fleetwood, Tom Lewis
68 Marcus Kinhult (Swe), Rafael Cabrera (Spa)
69 Matthias Schwab (Aut), Danny Willett, Haotong Li (Chn), Francesco Molinari (Ita), Justin Rose, Thomas Detry (Bel)
70 Bernd Wiesberger (Aut), Matt Wallace, Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Benjamin Hebert (Fra), Adria Arnaus (Spa), Thomas Pieters (Bel), Andy Sullivan
71 Matthew Fitzpatrick, Erik van Rooyen (Rsa), Robert MacIntyre, Kurt Kitayama (USA), Christiaan Bezuidenhout (Rsa), Paul Waring, Romain Langasque (Fra), Sergio Garcia (Spa), Jason Scrivener (Aus), Richard Sterne (Rsa)
72 David Lipsky (USA), Mikko Korhonen (Fin)
73 Shane Lowry, 73 Tyrrell Hatton, Victor Perez (Fra), Jorge Campillo (Spa), Justin Harding (Rsa), Paul Casey, Lee Westwood, Guido Migliozzi (Ita),
74 Ian Poulter, Joost Luiten (Ned), Patrick Reed (USA), Henrik Stenson (Swe), Jordan Smith, Joachim B. Hansen (Den)
75 Aaron Rai, Matthew Southgate
76 Scott Hend (Aus)
77 Andrea Pavan (Ita)