Thursday, 10 February 2011
Rory McIlroy  (Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy (Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy stormed into a two shot lead at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic before warning the star-studded field - I’ve improved since winning the title two years ago.

The pre-tournament spotlight may have been focused on the world's top three being present - and paired together - at a regular European Tour event for the first time since 1994, but the Northern Irishman, who could move to World Number Four on Sunday, out-shone them all in round one.

While Woods rescued a "scratchy" 71 with a brilliant closing eagle and both Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer scored 69s, 21 year old McIlroy blasted an eight birdie 65.

But for a three-putt bogey at the short seventh it would have matched his start on the same Emirates course two years ago - and that led to his first and so far only victory on The European Tour.

This time the Northern Irishman went to bed two in front of a back-to-form Sergio Garcia and South African Thomas Aiken, with Westwood and Kaymer joint tenth and Woods in a tie for 27th.

The top 65 make the cut after the second round and that was the 2006 and 2008 champion's position when he stood on the last fairway one over.

It had included a trip to the lake on the seventh and a double bogey six at the 467 yard 12th, but from 254 yards on the par five he struck a towering shot over the water to within six feet of the flag.

"It was pretty interesting. As much as I had to shape the tee shot right to left I had to shape that left to right," said Woods.

"I had to take something off it and threw it up in the air - it was perfect."

In his last five events McIlroy has finished fifth, sixth, fifth, fourth and then second - albeit a distant runner-up to Kaymer in Abu Dhabi three weeks ago.

Able to "fly under the radar" because of the attention on the sport's three leading lights, McIlroy took advantage of his early tee-off time with five successive birdies around the turn.

"I got into the round gradually, but once I did I felt there was a good score out there," he commented.

"All I'm trying to do is focus on hitting good shots - not just for the next three days, but for the next 12 months.

"I'd like to think I'm a better player than two years ago. I'm definitely more experienced and a more rounded and complete player.

"Dubai feels like a second home (he made his Tour debut in the event at 16) and when you can draw on good memories it can really help you."

Westwood had not had a bogey until he lost concentration over his pitch to the 18th, only just carried the water and ran up a bogey six.

Until that it was a vast improvement on his first two starts this year - 64th in Abu Dhabi, missed cut in Qatar last week - while Kaymer reckoned he would have had a "fantastic" round but for an unlucky break on the ninth.

His approach hit the hospitality units on the right and rebounded across the green into the lake. The same thing happened to defending champion Miguel Angel Jiménez and Alvaro Quiros.

Garcia, though, built on the promise of his ninth place last week, keeping a bogey off his card as he seeks the top two finish he probably needs to qualify for the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play later this month.

A semi-finalist last year, it is restricted to the top 64 in the world and he is currently 79th.

“It was good,” said the 31 year old. “I'm not going to say it was great because I did it hit a couple of drives that I didn't enjoy. But overall, I think it was good.”

Aiken, who has finished in the top 14 in six of his seven European Tour events this season, had four birdies on the way in as he signed for a bogey-free effort.

“It was really good today,” said Aiken. “I really golfed the ball well - I can't think of any shot that I really put way out of position. I really did hit it well, and no bogeys again, name of the game.”

What Woods and McIlroy would have given for David Howell's shot on the 186 yard seventh.

The Englishman, whose 1999 victory in the event came at the Dubai Creek course, holed-in-one to earn himself first-class tickets from Dubai's airline.

Pablo Martin was five under with one to play and, had he matched Woods’ eagle, he would have taken a share of the lead. But he copied Westwood’s bogey to sit four under alongside French pair Jean-Baptiste Gonnet and Victor Dubuisson, South African Richard Sterne, McIlroy’s former Walker Cup teammate Danny Willett and another Englishman, Steve Webster.

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Tournament Leaderboard

Pos Player nameNatHolePar
1QUIROS, AlvaroESP18-11
T2KINGSTON, JamesRSA18-10
T2HANSEN, AndersDEN18-10
T4STRANGE, ScottAUS18-9
T4GONNET, Jean-BaptisteFRA18-9
T4VELASCO, AlvaroESP18-9
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