Rory McIlroy shows old spark with his lowest round since 2010
Rory McIlroy has shot a 63, his lowest round in more than three years, in the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic, providing emphatic proof that the indifferent form of 2013 is now but a distant memory.
Playing alongside McIlroy, Tiger Woods could only look on and wish that his own 68 was anywhere near as controlled. While the world No 1's four-under beginning owed everything to his tenacious spirit, McIlroy is up there on nine-under courtesy of a wonderful driving display, some thrilling irons and a solid putter.
"I took advantage of how I am driving the ball and just need to do more of the same the next three days," McIlroy said. "This is close to my best, obviously. It is a step up from Abu Dhabi two weeks ago (where he finished second) and I feel very comfortable with my game. This is my lowest score for a while."
Try for more than 70 events, going back to the first round of the Hong Kong Open in November 2010. Back then, McIlroy was a 21-year-old with two titles - one on the European Tour, one of the PGA Tour - under his belt. There have since been two major triumphs and enough storylines to rival those of Woods, himself. Yet now it has all seemingly come good again.
McIlroy missed only one green all day as he adorned his blemish-free card with an eagle and seven birdies. His first birdie was perhaps his best when, from 167 yards, he carved a seven iron out of a fairway bunker to 10 feet on the 12th (his third). That triggered a run of three consecutive birdies and when he reached the par-five third (his 12th) McIlroy was six-under.
When he hit a five wood on that par five to eight feet and holed the putt, his mind dared to envisage a 59. "I had six left and needed five birdies for the magical number. I've birdied five in a row to finish before, so maybe," he said. "But no, after I didn't birdie the fourth and fifth I just wanted to shoot 62. I shot a 62 in a casual round at The Els Club last week and I wanted to shoot two 62s in a week."
Instead, he had to be content with an early three-shot advantage over a group on six-under, including the defending champion, Stephen Gallacher, who made the up the marquee three-ball. The Scot described McIlroy's round as "sublime". "I was trying to stay as close to Rory as I could," Gallacher said.
In that respect, he fared better than Woods. But still, after Woods's 79 to miss the cut at Torrey Pines at the Farmers Insurance Open on Saturday, this was a dramatic improvement, notwithstanding the near ideal conditions on this Emirates Course. Somehow, Woods managed to go to the turn in four-under, despite his wayward driving. It read much prettier than it looked, a fact not lost on McIlroy.
"Tiger's a true pro; he knows there are no pictures on a scorecard," McIlroy said. "He was hitting it a lot better at the end of the round but to shoot the score he did on our front nine was a good effort."
One commentator at Torrey opined that Woods's backswing was short enough to make him resemble "a 55-year-old". Woods explained why. "I've always played my best from a shorter position," he said. "Looking back at my younger days on tour it was even shorter than it is now, the only difference is I can't wheel on it like I used to.
"I used to snap the knee at the end to get the power, if I did that now I'd destroy the knee just like I did before. That's one of the reasons why I've had so many operations on it."
Woods was inevitably impressed with McIlroy, making the distinction between his young friend in 2014 and 2013. "He's playing a lot better. He has that combo between the ball and the driver, he was struggling with that a lot last year.
"You can have a driver ball combo that goes forever but you can't shape it. Out here in tournament golf, you have got to be able to manoeuvre and he just wasn't able to manoeuvre the ball. I see him hitting it both ways now and that is one of the reasons why he started playing well from the end of last year."