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01 March 2024

Woods struggles as McIlroy sets pace

By Agencies

Not even the best shot Tiger Woods has hit in an eternity could stop it from being Rory McIlroy’s day when the Omega Dubai Desert Classic began on Thursday at the Majlis course of Emirates Golf Club.

The entire build-up may have been about the world’s top three being present - and paired together - at a regular European Tour event for the first time since 1994, but the young Northern Irishman who could move to number four on Sunday outshone them all in round one.
While Woods rescued a “scratchy” 71 with a brilliant closing eagle and both Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer scored 69s, 21-year-old McIlroy blasted an eight-birdie 65.
But for a three-putt bogey at the short seventh it would have matched his start on the same Emirates course two years ago - and that led to his first and so far only victory on the circuit.
This time the Ryder Cup star went to bed two in front of a back-to-form Sergio Garcia and South African Thomas Aiken, with Westwood and Kaymer joint 10th and Woods in a tie for 27th.
The top 65 make the cut after the second round and that was 2006 and 2008 champion Woods’ position when he stood on the last fairway one over.
It had included a trip to the lake on the seventh and a double-bogey six at the 467-yard 12th, but from 254 yards on the par five he struck a towering shot over the water to within six feet of the flag.
“It was pretty interesting. As much as I had to shape the tee shot right to left I had to shape that left to right,” said Woods.
“I had to take something off it and threw it up in the air - it was perfect.”
Down to third in the world after almost 15 months without a victory and only 44th in his first start of the season, the American accepts the swing changes he is making will take time.
“It took me a while when I was with Hank (Haney) and it took me a while when I was with Butch (Harmon). I didn’t play worth a darn for two years,” he said.
“I’m doing it now (with Canadian coach Sean Foley) because I know I can become better. It will be more efficient.”
No need to tinker too much with McIlroy at the moment, though.
In his last five events he has finished fifth, sixth, fifth, fourth and then second - albeit a distant second - to Kaymer in Abu Dhabi three weeks ago.
Able to “fly under the radar” because of the attention on the sport’s three leading lights, McIlroy took advantage of his early tee-off time with five successive birdies around the turn.
“I got into the round gradually, but once I did I felt there was a good score out there,” he commented.
“All I’m trying to do is focus on hitting good shots - not just for the next three days, but for the next 12 months.
“I’d like to think I’m a better player than two years ago. I’m definitely more experienced and a more rounded and complete player.
“Dubai feels like a second home (he made his Tour debut in the event at 16) and when you can draw on good memories it can really help you.”
Westwood had not had a bogey until he lost concentration over his pitch to the 18th, only just carried the water and ran up a bogey six.
Until that it was a vast improvement on his first two starts this year - 64th in Abu Dhabi, missed cut in Qatar last week - while Kaymer reckoned he would have had a “fantastic” round but for an unlucky break on the ninth.
His approach hit the hospitality units on the right and rebounded across the green into the lake. The same thing happened to defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez and Alvaro Quiros.
Garcia, though, built on the promise of his ninth place last week, keeping a bogey off his card as he seeks the top-two finish he probably needs to qualify for the WGC-Accenture Match Play later this month.
A semifinalist last year, it is restricted to the top 64 in the world and he is currently 79th.