Renaissance continues for 'impeccable' McIlroy
THE power and the glory belong once again to Rory McIlroy.
It was plain even to children in the huge crowds which packed Abu Dhabi Golf Club on the Muslim Sabbath yesterday that McIlroy has left far behind the frustration and uncertainty which ensnared him for much of 2013.
McIlroy's head-to-head with American icon Phil Mickelson over the first 36 holes of the HSBC Championship was expected to give good measure of the 24-year-old's renaissance during this winter of content.
In fact, it was a no-contest.
His faith restored by November's Aussie Open victory over Adam Scott and pumped after 10 days of intensive 'pre-season training' just up the Emirates Highway in Dubai, McIlroy is lean, hungry and, he claims, hitting the ball as well as at any time in his career.
The Holywood youngster surged into a share of fourth place on seven-under, just two shy of the lead, with a second-round 67.
Six shots back, Mickelson, still getting his game and 43-year-old motor into smooth running order after an eight- week winter break with his family, made the cut with a couple to spare. His 70 yesterday featured a fist-pumping chip-in birdie at 14 and a crowd-pleasing 24-foot putt for another at the last.
If Mickelson struggled once again yesterday to find his rhythm and the narrow fairways on The National course, McIlroy built on a virtuoso performance with his Nike Covert driver on Thursday, particularly on his homeward nine. "Rory's back-nine effort was really impressive," Mickelson said.
"That was just a beautiful nine holes of golf. He's really striking the ball well and his game looks extremely sharp. His iron play was so much better, but his driving has been impeccable these two days, so I'm expecting Rory to have a good weekend."
On this form, McIlroy should have joint-overnight leaders Craig Lee of Scotland (36), seeking his first European Tour win, and Spain's Rafa Cabrera-Bello (29), the Dubai Desert Classic champion in 2012, looking over their shoulders in today's third round.
Not that the Ulsterman had things all his own way yesterday. After opening with birdie at the first, McIlroy slumped to a double-bogey at six after hitting his tee-shot into an unplayable lie; he then wound up in a greenside bunker, then two-putted from distance, eventually holing out from eight feet for his six.
A facile birdie on eight changed the complexion of his day and McIlroy would pick up five more on the journey home, at least two of which can be attributed to the raw power he now conceals in a relatively slim but muscular frame.
McIlroy flexed those muscles in spectacular fashion after his tee-shot flew into bottomless rough to the left of the 14th fairway. With an explosive swoosh of his nine-iron, he propelled his ball 155 yards to the green where it bounced off the pin and settled three feet from the hole.
In the process, McIlroy also excavated a thick, grassy divot as long as a doormat, emitting a loud grunt with the sheer, sudden exertion of this shot, which later he'd wittily attribute to "hanging around at so many tennis tournaments".
After that display of brute force at 14, the large gallery following McIlroy witnessed at 16, 17 and 18 the awesome blend of speed and power he invests in his tee-shots, especially at the last, with a 330-plus-yard drive down the fairway. Jamie Donaldson is no slouch but his ball came to rest some 75 yards behind McIlroy's, while Mickelson's wayward drive came to rest in the right rough.
Being able to hit booming tee-shots like these is an essential part of McIlroy's machismo. Being stripped of it on his first outing with Nike clubs in Abu Dhabi 12 months ago sparked a crisis of confidence. The result was a nightmare season in 2013.
McIlroy readily concedes he gets a rush from "standing in the fairway 30 yards ahead of everyone else" and he's clearly found added length through what he attributes to his new driver, ball and the power he has gained from his strength and conditioning programme.
On Tuesday, the public was given an insight into the intensity of McIlroy's off-course efforts when he outlined a typical day at his recent raining camp in Dubai.
"The day usually begins in the gym at seven," he explained. "I'm in there for an hour and a half, then get some breakfast and go to the course. I'll probably hit ball and practise my short game from maybe 10 until one; get some lunch and go out and play nine or 18. Some days I'll be back in the gym from 5.50 to seven, followed by some dinner and go to bed."
An avid reader, McIlroy has recently devoured the autobiographies of Andre Agassi and Alex Ferguson and currently has 'Tales from the Secret Footballer' on the bedside table.
As Mickelson noted, McIlroy is playing with power, increasing panache and rising confidence. As he looked forward to an exciting weekend, the Holywood star said: "It'd be nice to win on my first start of the year rather than the last."
ABU DHABI CHAMPIONSHIP,
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