Rivals back McIlroy to swing into gear
RORY McILROY was 90 miles up the Emirates Road in Dubai and Tiger Woods back home in Florida when, for the second time in six months, Jamie Donaldson bagged the Oscar in a big European Tour production.
Donaldson (37) who upstaged McIlroy and a cast of Irish Major champions to win last summer's Irish Open at Portrush, proved once again he's no bit-part player as the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship came to a gripping climax.
A combination of ring rust after his eight-week mid-winter break and unfamiliarity with new Nike clubs and ball culminated in a performance completely at odds with McIlroy's world-conquering feats in the second half of last year as he and Woods missed the cut.
Few were better placed to dispel any fears for the Holywood star than his fellow 23-year-old Thorbjorn Olesen, who tied second with Ryder Cup hero Justin Rose in only his second Tour appearance since joining McIlroy on the team at Nike.
Olesen used the equipment for the first time in competition at last week's Volvo Champions, confessing that he had reason to be grateful there was no cut in Durban as he grappled with inevitable teething problems.
"I learned a lot about the clubs and that definitely helped me in South Africa," said Olesen.
"It's great equipment and I really love the ball but I had the wrong three-wood hybrid in Durban; I changed it this week and it worked out great.
"I also found out I didn't hit any fliers with the new equipment, so I came to Abu Dhabi knowing the ball wouldn't fly out of the rough, which helped me a lot."
The Dane, who took his maiden European Tour title at last May's Sicilian Open, insisted that McIlroy will benefit greatly from his truncated outing in Abu Dhabi.
"You can do as much practice as you like with new equipment but it's different when you play tournaments," he said. "Rory's had a long break. Next time he's back (at February's Accenture Match Play), I'm sure he'll do great."
McIlroy left on Friday determined to "find a driver" after struggling with the set-up of his new Nike Covert, while he replaced his Method putter after just 18 holes, putting his old Scotty Cameron in the bag for the second round.
Though "delighted" with the new putter's performance on speedy surfaces in Florida, its lighter head required him to try and rap his ball rather than stroke it to get it close on slower greens in Abu Dhabi. The older putter's head is heavier.
Paul Casey, eight years at Nike after switching from Titleist, laughed off any suggestion of a problem for McIlroy with his new sponsors. The Englishman has no idea if McIlroy is required to carry only Nike clubs under the terms of his new, mega-million dollar contract but said: "For us at Nike, it's a family and there'd be no repercussions for what happened. It's a sport and Nike understands that. Rory will be absolutely fine. It's just a matter of time."
Olesen and Rose were in the final group and both missed putts that would have forced a play-off after Donaldson registered his only bogey of his closing 68 on the final hole, taking three putts to get down from 35 feet across a ridge.
The Welshman missed from little more than 40 inches for the par which would have clinched his second Tour title. He then had to watch on TV as his two rivals gave themselves an outside chance of birdie on this par-five and a tie on 14-under.
"I was ready to punch something," Donaldson said. "I wasn't happy with myself but I had to try and keep my composure because, chances were, there was going to be a play-off and I was going to have to redeem myself."
Yet Olesen misread his 17-footer and settled for a 69. Then Rose, who led by two overnight but lost momentum as he struggled to read the front-nine greens, lipped out with his birdie attempt from 15 feet. He shot 71.
For sheer horror, however, one merely had to turn to the 13th and a nightmare four-putt from four feet and treble-bogey seven which knocked David Howell out of a share of the tournament lead.
Padraig Harrington, tied 23rd with fellow Dubliner Peter Lawrie on five-under after a bogey-free 69, revealed that he'll play the Phoenix Open for the first time at the end of this month. It will be the first of a four-tournament stretch including the AT&T at Pebble Beach, the Northern Trust at Riviera and the Accenture Match Play.
"I didn't play my best," said Harrington of his performance here. "The last few days, I did a lot of practice and lost my timing, while my focus wasn't as good. I'm looking forward to a couple of days' work at home with (mind coach) Dave Alred this week."
Lawrie shot 70 to match Harrington's €19,799 cheque and goes on to Qatar buoyed by his performance. Gareth Maybin tumbled into 39th on two-under (worth €11,920) after a 73. Michael Hoey defied back pain after a fall at his hotel swimming pool last Wednesday to close with a 71 and €5,253 in 61st.