Ernie Els one shot behind leader Rafael Cabrera-Bello at Dubai Desert Classic
Published 05/02/2016 | 15:31
A month after fearing for his future in the game, Ernie Els cruised into contention for a fourth victory in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic as defending champion Rory McIlroy kept his own title hopes alive.
McIlroy was outside the projected cut when he carded his fifth bogey of the day on the 11th, but birdied four of his remaining seven holes to salvage a 72 and finish four under par.
That was six shots behind halfway leader and 2012 champion Rafael Cabrera-Bello, with South Africa's Els a shot behind alongside compatriot Trevor Fisher Jnr and England's Danny Willett.
Andy Sullivan, Chris Wood, Joost Luiten and Thorbjorn Olesen were a shot further back on eight under, Olesen carding a flawless 64 - the lowest score of the week - and Sullivan a 66 to continue his brilliant recovery after starting his first round with a double-bogey seven.
Els missed the cut in the BMW SA Open in January after suffering another attack of the "yips" in the first round, the 46-year-old's par putt from 18 inches on the ninth not even touching the hole.
The four-time major winner missed two similar putts in the space of a month towards the end of last season and, with anchored s trokes banned since January 1, was unable to revert to the ''belly'' putter with which he won the last of his major titles in the 2012 Open.
However, Els was determined that the problem would not mean the end of his stellar career and has quickly adapted to a cross-handed putting method which was certainly paying dividends at Emirates Golf Club.
Starting his second round on the back nine after an opening 68, Els birdied the par-five 13th and holed from 15 feet for an eagle on the 18th, before picking up further shots on the third and fifth in a fine 67.
Els, who has slipped to 205th in the world rankings after two years without a win, told Sky Sports: " I feel like I'm looking forward to the weekend. I'm not dreading the greens. That's where I've been for the last two or three years since I won the Open Championship.
" I have been feeling better and better since the first week of the season, where it was pretty bad, because from 18 inches I was dodgy. T o make the changes that I have made, drastic changes in the putting set-up, the grip and so forth, and now to be feeling very comfortable and confident is an about-turn, isn't it?
"It's an exact turnaround from a few weeks ago when I was dreading to get on the greens. I feel very different. I feel like I don't mind making a two-footer or a four-footer."
McIlroy had bogeyed his opening hole for the second day running and showed his frustration at three-putting the fourth by throwing his ball into the lake beside the green.
And despite a birdie on the fifth, bogeys on the eighth, ninth and 11th had the world number two briefly outside the cut mark before birdies on the 13th, 16th, 17th and 18th.
"I did not have my best stuff with me and struggled at the start and in the middle of the round," McIlroy told Sky Sports. "I needed something, first and foremost just to be here for the weekend, and then to birdie the last three holes definitely gives me a little bit of momentum going into the weekend.
"I felt like I played some decent golf out there but missed some short putts. I just wasn't committing to the lines I was picking. All in all it was a decent finish and if I can get off to a better start (on Saturday) you never know.
" There's a lot of players between myself and the lead, but at the same time I've come back from bigger deficits than this, and this is one of my favourite places.
"The course got firm and fast and in a way I'm thankful that I'm not going to be out in one of the last pairings (on Saturday), because I feel like I'll get some of the better conditions and the course will be a little more receptive."
Cabrera-Bello, who was second in the Qatar Masters last week, has dropped just one shot in the first 36 holes and credited a hot putter for his second consecutive 67.
"On Thursday I really felt I played great tee to green," Cabrera-Bello said. "And (Friday) was the exact opposite. I didn't play as good, as sharp. It was windy and I didn't quite find my tempo but the putting was extremely hot. I rolled one of the best putting rounds of my life, so that made up for everything else."