DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — On the tee and in the blue shirt and navy pants, from High Wycombe in England and now fighting out of Chicago, Luke "The Machine" Donald. In the green shirt and frankly hideous mint plaid pants, from Holywood, Northern Ireland, and soon to be West Palm Beach, Fla., Rory "The Glory" McIlroy.
It was round one of the Duel in the Desert. Or the Scrap in the Scrub, as it turned out, as Donald took several driving detours into the pine straw and wasteland at the edge of the Earth (the course, not the planet).
OK, there was a buzz around the first tee of Greg Norman's Earth Course that felt like the final group of a major on Sunday, not the first round of the Dubai World Championship, but golf hasn't quite reached boxing's hysterical levels of hyperbole.
McIlroy and Donald were announced with the more understated yet nevertheless impressive prefixes of U.S. Open champion and World No. 1, respectively. Anyone who hadn't seen their welcoming pleasantries on the practice green shortly after high noon would have thought they were the worst of enemies rather than Ryder Cup pals. No handshake. No chat. Didn't even look at each other. Game faces on. Both looked tense. Particularly Donald.
He watched McIlroy smash his opening drive down the middle of the fairway and then pushed his into a bush 20 yards right of the fairway and 40 yards behind McIlroy. Feeling the pressure perhaps of setting out to make history by trying to become the first player to win the money list on both sides of the Atlantic. McIlroy fizzed an iron to four feet and holed for birdie. Donald hacked out, chipped up and missed his par putt. Bogey. First punch landed by the Northern Irishman.
Both found thick rough to the right of the second fairway. Donald laid up on this easy par 5 to set up a ho-hum birdie. McIlroy tried to dink a 5-wood down the fairway, but his ball squirted right into bushes, pursued by a solitary marshal. It was never seen again. McIlroy was driven back up the hill in a cart to take a penalty drop and play his fourth stroke. He fired at the green with an iron this time but came up 30 yards short. His ball plopped in the shimmering white sand of a giant greenside bunker. (The sand here has been imported from North Carolina to make the bunkers look like those at Augusta National. Arabs buying sand from the Americans. The world has truly gone mad.)
Memories of McIlroy's Masters meltdown came to mind. Double-bogey seven. It felt like McIlroy had made the mistake of playing match play in his desire to beat Donald instead of playing the course. He was at it again at the par-4 third. He went for a sucker pin position but pulled off the jaw-dropping hero shot to leave himself a kick-in birdie.
Next to impress in this exhibition of magnificence was Donald. He scorched a mid-iron to seven feet at the par-3 fourth. That's 245 yards with a mid-iron! That's a driver for real people. His birdie putt lipped out. He's mortal, after all. Donald and McIlroy traded birdies at the fifth in a seemingly relentless pursuit of perfection.
The front nine belonged to Donald, who turned in 33, three under par. McIlroy recovered from his "silly mistakes," as he called them, to shoot 36. But McIlroy raised the bar on the back nine while Donald began to look punch drunk and played like someone who had drunk too much punch. He staggered home with bogies on 14, 15 and 16 to finish at even-par 72.
McIlroy, meanwhile, switched into Tiger Woods mode. He scorched the back nine for a 30, rattling in six birdies for a six-under-par 66. That was a nine-shot swing on Donald in nine holes. Sensational stuff from the No. 2 player in the world, who blushed when asked what he thought of Donald's saying he has more talent than Woods. Had he heard Donald's comments?
"No!" he said, grinning and rolling his eyes. "Yeah!" he added, smiling after a pause for comedic effect. Perfect timing on and off the course.
"Look, it's one thing to have talent, but it's another to have the capability of turning that talent into something productive," McIlroy said. "There are different types of talent. I think what Luke was saying was that golf comes as easy for me as it does for Tiger. But, look, Tiger's won 90-whatever tournaments and 14 majors, and that's definitely more of a talent than five wins."
McIlroy is just two shots off the lead held by Sweden's Peter Hanson, who shot an eight-under 64, and the Northern Irishman was understandably delighted.
"It was the perfect start," he said. "To shoot a great score like that really sets me up nicely for the next three rounds. Everything seems sort of stress free. I don't want to say easy, because it's not, but it's nice when you get on little runs like this."
Donald had mixed feelings about his day's work.
"A mixture of two halves, really," he said. "It's always hard playing with Rory. It almost feels like a match play kind of scenario. Obviously I won't be paired on him tomorrow. Can go and just concentrate on myself. The good news is this is two shots better than I was in the first round last year, and I still finished ninth."
That is the magic number for Donald, who will wrap up the European Tour's money list by finishing ninth or higher this week. McIlroy can't change that, even by finishing first.