Magical McIlroy turns back the clock
THE legend of Rory McIlroy was reborn in Dubai yesterday.
Memories of Major championship wizardry by McIlroy at Congressional and Kiawah Island were evoked as he compiled a majestic nine-under-par 63 in the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic.
All week at the Emirates Club, McIlroy (24), has exuded an air of contentment and it was awe-inspiring yesterday to see him wield such complete command over his domain, his golf ball and, indeed, world No 1 Tiger Woods.
The misery and self-doubt of 2013 melted away under the desert sun. McIlroy, giving a performance described by his Scottish playing companion and defending champion Stephen Gallacher as "simply sublime", appeared invincible once again.
As he leapt two shots clear of his closest pursuer, Italy's Edoardo Molinari, at the head of the field, McIlroy confirmed: "This is close to my best.
"I took advantage of how well I'm driving the ball and need to do more of the same over the next three days.
"It's a step-up from Abu Dhabi two weeks ago (where he tied second with Phil Mickelson and might have won but for a two-stroke penalty) and I feel very comfortable with my game."
Yet those lucky enough to witness yesterday's renaissance felt as if they were transported back to 2012.
McIlroy ruled the world back then as he followed up his US PGA rout at Kiawah with wins at America's Deutsche Bank and BMW Championships before blowing Justin Rose away in a spectacular six-birdie finish on Sunday at Europe's DP World Tour Championship.
US Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples, a former Desert Classic champion invited to Dubai for the event's silver jubilee, said: "When a guy that talented gets his game back, he will dominate. It's just a matter of how long."
Tiger, who showed resilience and incredible powers of recovery to post a bogey-free 68 after spending so much time stumbling about in the desert, felt McIlroy had been successful in "finding the right driver and ball combo".
While McIlroy harked back to the final round 66 with which he pinched the Australian Open from under Adam Scott's nose in Sydney last December as "a pretty good round", yesterday's effort, his lowest on tour since November 2010, was near infallible.
Only once did he land himself in trouble. After putting the slightest 'block' on his drive down 12, his third, McIlroy grimaced and quietly implored his ball to "sit, sit". For once, it ignored him, landing in the heart of a fairway trap.
With his route to the flag barred by the bunker's high face, McIlroy had to aim well left and play a fade off the sand with his seven-iron.
He executed this 163-yard shot with surgical precision, his ball swerving in a grand arc to six feet. The Holywood native then holed-out for the birdie of the week.
McIlroy's own favourite shot was a honey-pure five-wood he hit from the heart of the fairway to eight feet for eagle three at the third.
"When I got to eight-under there, I'd six holes left and needed five birdies for the magical number (59)," he admitted when asked if at any point he'd thought of the course record 61 set by Ernie Els in 1994. "Then I didn't birdie the par three fourth and fifth, despite hitting a really good putt there."
He would pick up just one more shot, at the short seventh, where he potted with his putter from the fringe.
And there was a sliver of frustration: "I wanted to shoot 62," he explained. "I shot 62 last week in a casual round at The Els (course) so I wanted to do it twice in seven days. Wasn't quite possible, came up one short!"
McIlroy's game perfectly fits the Majlis, where he won for the first time as a professional in 2009. "It is up there in terms of courses I'm comfortable on," he confirmed. "St Andrews is another one where I feel I can shoot low scores" (like his Major championship record-equalling 63 in the 2010 British Open).
Gallacher, who shot 66, felt McIlroy "made it look so easy" yesterday. "I was trying to stay as close to Rory as I could."
"I don't think it's ever easy," the Ulsterman retorted. Doubtless, he'll find the greens significantly harder and therefore more difficult to hold this afternoon. Yet when McIlroy is at his imperious best, no test appears too difficult.