RORY McILROY was still Irish golf's 'Boy Wonder' when he won in Dubai last February. One year later, he's 'The Man' at the Emirates.
McIlroy (20) has done a lot of growing up in the last 12 months and his maturity shone through yesterday as he marched through driving wind and choking clouds of sand -- or was it concrete dust? -- to the head of the camel train also known as the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Okay, conditions weren't all that bad, but this corner of the Arabian Desert and the way McIlroy plays the Majlis course inspires hyperbole.
The Holywood youngster's performance as he opened his first defence of a European Tour title was impressive indeed. He showed patience and persistence when required, then no little flair on the back nine as he compiled a four-under-par 68 to share the lead with five others.
Jeev Milkha Singh (38), overjoyed by last Friday's birth of his first child, a boy; Charl Schwartzel (25) named 'Player of the Month' for January after back-to-back wins in his native South Africa; Edoardo Molinari (28), a World Cup winner for Italy with his brother Francesco in November; hardy young Swede Alex Noren (27); and Welsh veteran Stephen Dodd (43) all sat alongside McIlroy at the top table.
Yet there's only one other player in the world whose game is as well suited as McIlroy's to the Majlis and he's supposedly trying out a different course right now -- for sex addiction at a Mississippi clinic. "I do feel very comfortable on this golf course. I feel as if the tee shots suit me. I feel as if I've got most of the shots I need to do well out here," said McIlroy yesterday, after walking the walk.
Looking back to the first-round 64 which set him on the road to victory last February, McIlroy went on: "That's probably the easiest 64 I'll ever shoot. Today was much more of a grind and I had to stay so patient out there.
"You were hitting good shots to 25, 30 feet all the time and it's hard to take chances from there," added McIlroy. "So when I did get a few chances, I took them and didn't make any stupid mistakes, which was nice. Just one bogey in these conditions is pretty solid golf."
His solitary bogey came after a long delay on the second tee where McIlroy yanked his drive so far left, he needed to drop off a cart path on the Wadi course.
But he bounced back with a lucky birdie-four at three, courtesy of a 25-foot putt which struck the hole so hard, the ball jumped nearly a foot into the air before dropping.
McIlroy's knowledge of golf is also impressive. For example, he was able to give a quick-fire biographic note yesterday on each of the four Ryder Cup vice-captains chosen by US skipper Corey Pavin for Celtic Manor.
"Well, Paul Goydos was beaten by Sergio Garcia at the Players in 2008," he said. " Tom Lehman won the Open at Lytham in '96; Jeff Sluman won a few times on the PGA Tour, along with the PGA in '88; and Davis Love III was PGA champion at Winged Foot in '97 -- that rainbow came out over the course, which was touching, as his father had recently died." Wow!
McIlroy's a shoo-in for his Ryder Cup debut in October and the plethora of recent young winners on Tour -- including Noren, Ross Fisher, Martin Kaymer, Simon Dyson, Ross McGowan, Alvaro Quiros and Francesco Molinari -- suggests six rookies could make Monty's team.
This offers strong hope of a captain's pick for experienced individuals like Darren Clarke, whose recent good form was underscored by his sturdy 71 in the worst of the weather yesterday morning. The Ulsterman's only slip was a missed three-foot putt at the ninth hole, his last.
Graeme McDowell posted a solid 72, one better than Gareth Maybin and Damien McGrane, while Michael Hoey (75), Irish Open champion Shane Lowry (75) and Peter Lawrie (77) were disappointed with their opening gambits.
Noren tells a lovely tale from the locker-room last Tuesday of nervously asking eight-times Major champion Tom Watson to autograph a flag from last year's British Open at Turnberry.
"I felt the same way I did 10 years ago asking players for golf balls behind the 18th green at the Compaq Scandinavian Open," he admitted. Watson, playing this week on a sponsor's invite, played with Dyson and Quiros and it was fascinating to watch the clash of style between the American master and Spain's master-blaster Quiros.
This was highlighted at the 549-yard 10th, where Quiros smashed his drive 55 yards further than Watson's. Old Tom (60) then hit a lay-up to wedge range with his trusty utility club, before the Spaniard's whiplash second fell into deep rough short of the green.
Quiros' blast out of the long grass skipped 30 feet past the cup and he needed two more to get down, while Watson expertly pitched to six feet and putted out with aplomb, proving there's more than one way to pluck a birdie.
Though four shots separated them at the finish -- after Quiros birdied three of his final four holes for a 69 -- it was in no way was this a mismatch.
Dubai Desert Classic
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