McIlroy and Donald set for dead-heat finish in European Tour showdown
THE European Tour title race looks set to go right to the wire after Rory McIlroy produced a fabulous nine-hole stretch today, just as Luke Donald was losing his way.
By coming home in just 30 shots for a six-under-par 66, McIlroy, who has to win the Dubai World Championship to have a chance of the circuit's number one spot, climbed into third place only two behind Swede Peter Hanson.
Even if the 22-year-old - still suffering from a virus and due to see a doctor again on Saturday after receiving blood test results - does win for the second week running, the Order of Merit crown will only be his if Donald finishes outside the top nine.
But England's world number one, paired with McIlroy, fell back to joint 26th when three successive bogeys from the 14th left him with a level-par 72.
The first two dropped shots came when he drove into bushes and he had to take penalty drops, the third when he could not recover from finding a fairway bunker off the next tee.
"I felt very much in control and then I lost it," Donald said as a race he seemed a near-certainty to win a month ago hotted up even more.
He has only to think back two months, however, to realise there is still a long way to go.
Donald became the first European to capture the PGA Tour money list title in America when he played the last nine holes of the final event in 30 to overtake Webb Simpson.
He also recalled his last trip to the Earth course 13 months ago.
"This is two shots better than the first round last year and I still finished ninth," he added. "You've got to find the positives."
However, McIlroy won the Hong Kong Open last Sunday with a closing 65 and feeling run down is not affecting his golf yet.
"To be honest, I'm sort of using it to my advantage in a way," Northern Ireland's US Open champion said.
"It's sort of taken the pressure off me. I'm not 100% and if it doesn't happen it doesn't happen and there's nothing I can do about it.
"You can just go about your game and try and play as well as you can.
"I definitely don't feel invincible, but I feel like every time I tee it up I've got a good chance of shooting a good score.
"I don't think I've finished outside the top four since the US PGA (eight events ago) and everything seems sort of stress-free.
"It's not going to last forever, I'm sure. I'm sure there's going to be a point where I struggle, but right now it's nice to have that feeling."
Not even losing a ball with his fifth shot of the day and taking a double bogey bothered McIlroy as he birdied two of the next three.
But it was after the turn when the fireworks really began. He holed from 12 feet on 10, 25 feet on 13, 12 feet at the next, 40 feet on 16 and from 18 and 20 feet on the final two greens.
He still reckons Donald has a better short game than him, but it was Donald who came into the event saying that McIlroy had the most talent of anyone he had ever played with.
That sparked some heated debate given that Tiger Woods has won 14 majors and 93 titles as a pro, and Donald's eve-of-tournament preparations included going on his Twitter site to praise Woods.
"A few people aren't understanding what I meant," he said. "The word talent and Rory to me means a free-flowing swing who makes everything look so easy.
"Tiger has always been the best at getting the ball in the hole when it mattered the most. That's not just talent, that's something else too.
"Talent can only take you so far, you need the right attitude (mindset) and application to perform at the highest level.
"(I'd) never try to disrespect Tiger in any way. He is still the greatest player I have played with."
McIlroy, no stranger to Twitter controversies himself, was asked for his opinion on the matter.
"It's one thing to have talent, but another to actually have the capability of turning that talent into something productive," he said.
"I think what Luke was saying was maybe golf comes as easy to me as it does Tiger - I'll never know - but Tiger's won 90-whatever tournaments and 14 majors and that's definitely more of a talent than (my) five wins.
"There's different type of talent. I think what he said was maybe taken a little bit out of context."
It was Hanson who actually played the best golf of the day. He also came home in 30 to equal the course record set by Lee Westwood in winning the 2009 title and matched by Ross Fisher last year.
Without a victory since making his Ryder Cup debut 15 months ago, he leads by a stroke from 1999 Open champion Paul Lawrie, whose win in Spain in March was his first success for nine years.
Sergio Garcia is fourth after a 67 and so still has hopes of a third successive Tour victory.
Meanwhile, Paul Lawrie produced the sort of play today that not only gives him an opportunity to win the Dubai World Championship, but should also reduce the amount of stick he receives from his two golf-mad sons.
The 1999 Open champion is a stroke behind Swede Peter Hanson after a seven-under-par opening round of 65.
At 16, oldest son Craig plays off scratch and 12-year-old Michael is already a five-handicapper - and both have beaten the former Ryder Cup star in the past year.
"I don't want them seeing dad as a poor player," said Lawrie, who in March ended nine years without a victory at the Andalucia Open.
"They were giving me a bit of ribbing, which is just teenagers being teenagers, and that drives me on. I want to be a decent player for them.
"The first time Craig beat me he had about a five-footer at the last and I even tried to put him off.
"He just knocked it right in the middle. You shake his hand and say 'Well done, son', but you're thinking something else under your breath."