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McIlroy must up a gear to stay on top

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Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy shake hands at the end of the second round of the Dubai Desert Classic

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy shake hands at the end of the second round of the Dubai Desert Classic

Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy shake hands at the end of the second round of the Dubai Desert Classic

IF Rory McIlroy screeched away like a Ferrari with his opening 63 at the Dubai Desert Classic, his second-round 70 at the Emirates Club was more Micra or Punto – decent and respectable, but it wouldn't turn many heads.

McIlroy still motored into today's third round with a one-stroke lead. Provided he shakes off yesterday's stomach upset and is firing on all cylinders, the 24-year should again challenge the 'lap record' and take the chequered flag this weekend on a track he cherishes.

Another Irish golfer with a gra for the magnificent Majlis Course, Damien McGrane, looms large in McIlroy's rear-view mirror.

In 40 tournament rounds here since 2004, the feisty 42-year-old from Kells plots his way around this place like a chess master.

McGrane followed up his first-round 66 with a more pedestrian 70 to share third place with England's Danny Willett and Julien Quesne of France on eight-under, three behind McIlroy.

"Damien's played well here before," said the Ulsterman. "I remember a few years ago, he played with Tiger in the final group at the weekend and it's good to see him up there. He's a real pro, gets it around and obviously likes this course."

STORMS

With winds forecast today and rainstorms tomorrow, conditions might favour the diminutive Meath man, who's at his best when the going gets tough, as he proved by winning the 2008 Volvo China Open in a deluge.

World No 1 Tiger Woods would also prefer challenging conditions after falling eight strokes off the pace set by McIlroy with a one-over-par 73. "I need a lot of wind on the weekend and to play two great rounds," he admitted.

For the second day in succession, Woods pulled an inordinate number of his tee shots left. Finding just four of 14 fairways, he spent more time in the desert, communing with the multitude following the marquee group, than on the short grass.

After a shocking 79 last Saturday at Torrey Pines cut short his Farmers Insurance Open title-defence, Tiger's continued lack of co-ordination and control this week suggests he has little hope of claiming a third Desert Classic victory tomorrow.

Yet for a spell during the first three holes yesterday, it looked as if Woods and McIlroy had somehow traded places overnight.

After a flawless display with his Nike covert on Thursday, the Northern Irishman yanked yesterday's opening drive into the left rough before airmailing the green on the way to bogey five. He then carved his next two tee shots right, while Tiger found those first three fairways in succession.

Normal service was resumed after McIlroy salvaged a reassuring birdie four out of the long grass and front bunker at the third and followed-up with three more as he scooted to 13-under through 10 holes.

Still, he made errors down the stretch completely at odds with Thursday's command performance.

A bogey six at 13, where he hacked out sideways after driving into trouble on the left and then three-putted, missing from two feet for par, was followed by another dropped shot at 16, where he blasted his tee shot deep into soft desert sand on the right and again could only blast his ball back onto the fairway.

In between, McIlroy missed the 14th green from mid-fairway with a jaded-looking short-iron that only made sense when he later revealed: "We'd a seafood takeaway last night and I ate something that didn't agree with me. I didn't feel well this morning and haven't had much to eat today."

Nourished by a sweet birdie at the last, McIlroy plays in the final pairing today with Brooks Koepka (23), an American who not only possesses a passport but has put it to extensive use since 2012 as he contested 39 tournaments on six Tours in 21 countries.

Koepka clinched his European card with three Challenge Tour victories last year and underlined his true potential with a 65 yesterday, an exemplary effort matched only by Willett, who accompanies McGrane today.

Michael Hoey crept through the cut on two-under after an even-par 72 but Shane Lowry (73, 143), Gareth Maybin (73, 144), Simon Thornton (71, 146) and Pater Lawrie (73, 149) missed out.

Fred Couples feigned exasperation after birdies at 17 and 18 ushered the Seattle native through on the mark, forcing him to forego a prime seat on the halfway line at tomorrow's Super Bowl, in which his beloved Seahawks meet the Broncos. "I've two 50-yard line seats at my first Super Bowl and I'm standing here having birdied the final two holes. So you can call me stupid. Please, call me stupid.

"I tried to bogey 16 and succeeded; I tried to bogey the part five 13th and succeeded but I just couldn't butcher enough holes," he joked. "In all honesty, I'd never not try. I can watch the Super Bowl on TV. It's the next best thing."

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Irish Independent