Sunday 22 September 2019

McIlroy draws on lessons of the past

Rory McIlroy plays his second shot on the par-five 18th
Rory McIlroy plays his second shot on the par-five 18th

William S Callahan

Once bitten, twice shy is the mantra for Rory McIlroy's next three rounds in the DP World Tour Championship as he chases a third Race To Dubai Order of Merit title.

The bite? It came back in 2009 when the 20-year-old McIlroy came to the UAE knowing the coveted accolade of Europe's number one was his - if he could finish ahead of Lee Westwood.

The two golfers were then stablemates in the ISM Sports Management group, headed by Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, but when it came to the ultimate prize in Europe, Westwood was in no mood for friendly banter.

His body language oozed conviction and assertiveness throughout the tournament and his golf matched his mood.

McIlroy treated it as match-play and got bullied in the sense of being dominated by Westwood. It was a lesson well learned.

Yesterday, in round one, the world number three was paired with his closest challenger for the R2D title, England's Danny Willett.

The situation was as close to matchplay as it gets.

Willett was well up for the head-to-head challenge, but McIlroy was not buying into that concept.


"I'm fortunate that I've been in this position a few times before," said the current World No.3. "I think the first time I came in here was going against Lee Westwood in 2009. I treated it a bit like match-play, which probably wasn't a good idea, and he played fantastically and won the tournament. I think I finished third.

"But obviously this time is a little different, even though it's so close.

"All I can do is focus on myself and try and win the golf tournament, and if I do that, then obviously everything else will fall into place," said McIlroy.

There was little to separate them. Both men shot 68, four-under-par, to lie just two shots adrift of pacesetters Martin Kaymer, Andy Sullivan, Marcus Fraser and Ian Poulter, each of whom carded a six-under-par 66.

McIlroy shaded the putting with 26 compared to Willett's 30, although in McIlroy's case that statistic was enhanced by his taking just one putt in total on the 17th and 18th holes.

On the par-3 17th, he had the nous to pitch over a slope when his ball was on the green, but more than 50 feet away from the hole.

Although he won't be a favourite of the greenkeeper for the divot he took on the putting surface in making his shot, McIlroy got the job done as he holed from 12 feet for par.

Then he avoided a potential bogey or double-bogey after twice visiting bunkers on the 620-yard, par-5 18th, when he holed out from a greenside bunker for a birdie four.

"Yeah, it definitely feels much better birdieing the last hole, just to birdie that, and you shoot four-under-par and get myself just a little bit closer to the leaders, yeah, it feels good going into the next three days.

"Ball-striking tee-to-green for the most part has been very good all throughout the year, and it's been the putter that held me back.

"But I felt like I putted well today, so that bodes well for the next three days," he said.

Willett spoke after the round of hoping to play alongside McIlroy at the weekend but for round two they were separated, with McIlroy alongside Emiliano Grillo, and Willett with Branden Grace.

Shane Lowry's three-over-par 75 undermined his double ambition to win the tournament and then hope that results broke his way to allow him snatch the title from McIlroy.


Lowry's day started badly when he carved his opening tee shot into bushes on the first hole. From that situation he was forced to take a drop en route to the first bogey of the day.

Two more bogeys followed on the first nine as he turned in 39, three-over.

Three birdies on the back stretch were nullified by a double-bogey 6 on the 12th hole, and a bogey five at the 16th.

There are two contests going on this week, with the overall R2D title at stake, and also a prestigious tournament which gutsy competitors such as Martin Kaymer and Ian Poulter badly want to win.

Kaymer has good memories of this part of the world, as he has previously won in Abu Dhabi three times and also won this tournament in 2010 which also clinched the Race to Dubai title for the German Ryder Cup player.

Meanwhile, Graeme McDowell came to the RSM Classic at Sea Island GC in Georgia with confidence high following his victory in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, Mexico, last Sunday.

The tournament is being played over the Seaside (Par-70) course, and the Plantation (Par-72) course, and McDowell filed an opening three-under, par-67 on the Seaside layout.

Most golfers find it difficult to follow up a winning week with a similar performance in the next tournament.

McDowell's joy and relief at finally making a breakthrough in a year of struggle was expected to follow that rule of thumb, and yet, most departments of his game looked to be in good shape in round one.

The early pace was set at seven-under-par by Kevin Kisner, who shot 65 on the Plantation course, so three -under-par was a decent start to the tournament for McDowell, who knows his score could easily have been better.

The Northern Irishman created good opportunities to progress further up the leaderboard, but missed a birdie putt from six feet on the par-4 16th, and another from four feet on the 17th.

In typical gritty fashion, he recovered his composure and finished the round on a positive note by slotting home a 25-foot putt for a birdie three on the 18th hole.

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