DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Pretty quiet second round Friday at the Dubai Desert Classic. Apart from seven-under-par 65s from Lee Westwood and Thomas Bjorn, and another from Rory McIlroy that could have been a 61. Oh, and Martin Kaymer dunked his first-ever hole-in-one from 180 yards with an 8-iron (that's wind-assisted 5-iron distance, surely?). Kaymer won an Omega watch worth $20,000 for his perfect strike. His Rolex sponsor was no doubt delighted.
Kaymer's 67 took him to 11 under par for the tournament, while McIlroy and Bjorn share the lead at 13 under. Rafael Cabrera-Bello is at 12 under while Westwood is lurking at 10 under. That's a leaderboard that should grab the attention of those MIA in Dubai. Are you watching, Tiger Woods and Luke Donald?
But Kaymer's ace couldn't take the spotlight away from a remarkable bogey-free round from McIlroy. He is now a cumulative 46 under par in his last 14 rounds at the Emirates Golf Club. Starting his second round on the easier back nine, McIlroy birdied all three par 5s, plus the drivable par-4 17th. But McIlroy measures himself by such high standards these days that he was disappointed not to have converted any of his eagle chances. Kick-in birdies are all well and good, but the bar has been raised so high they almost feel like shots dropped rather than gained.
"I definitely think it could have been better than 65," McIlroy said. "I don't want to say easy but it was as simple a 65 as you're going to shoot. I was never really under any pressure early in the round. This was very stress-free golf."
Stress-free? Maybe. But McIlroy started to get irritated when his game fell slightly below perfection. He shook his head and muttered to the heavens when he missed a three-foot putt for birdie at the first hole (his 10th). It was a tentative, "Every Which Way But Loose" stab that took a detour before missing the hole as if Clint Eastwood had yelled, "Left turn, Clyde."
At the second he had to step off his drive as the huge crowd settled down around the tee. Then on the green he sent out a death stare to a photographer who snapped away while McIlroy was trying to save par. McIlroy is having to learn to deal with all the distractions that come when you are the star attraction followed by the largest gallery. He's now getting a taste of what it's like to be Tiger Woods.
McIlroy reached the par-5 third with two hefty swipes with a driver and 3-wood, but turned away in disgust as his ball rolled 35 feet away from the pin. Only a tap-in birdie. He stuck his tongue out at his tee shot on the par-3 fourth. Not because he missed the green — he didn't — but because his ball had the temerity to plop down too far away to offer up a birdie chance. He made par, but par for the course is no longer an acceptable currency for McIlroy. And nor should it be when he is tilting at becoming No.1 in the world.
His round was a master class in driving that set him up to hit 17 greens in regulation. At the sixth he arced his approach in to a pin placed in the middle of the thinnest part of the green. The landing area was no bigger than a picnic blanket. His ball came to rest four feet from the hole as softly as a wasp on a jelly sandwich. He helped himself to another birdie, cheered along by a group of his mates from Holywood, Northern Ireland, and his father, Gerry, who was chaperoning his son's girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki.
"I feel like you should shoot in the mid-60s and the way I'm playing this week, if I didn't shoot anything like that around here, I would be pretty disappointed," McIlroy said.
That's an ominous message for his rivals.
Robert Rock thinks so. The Englishman has had quite an education these past few weeks. First he beat Woods in Abu Dhabi and now he has had two days in the company of McIlroy. So which one is best? "Ah, you can't ask me that," he said with a laugh. "That's not fair." Rock took a diplomatic pause for thought.
"I am sure we are going to see some interesting battles between the two this year," Rock said. "Both are just brilliant in every department. Rory was fantastic. From the ninth onwards on Thursday he played perfect golf. I feel lucky to have been up close to watch it."
"The way he played the 18th both days was really impressive," Rock continued. "You can't do much better than hit a long draw off the tee and a high iron to 10 feet. Makes the game look simple, especially off the tee. He is probably the best driver of a ball I've seen. He made my 67 look average."
Rock is four under for the tournament, so a decent check is all he can hope for over the weekend. For McIlroy, it will be a chance to lay down a marker for the season and to send a message to his rivals in Dubai and at Pebble Beach. Of course he wants to win here, but Dubai is just a stepping-stone to the first major of the year, and McIlroy said he is already thinking about his return to the Masters.
"You start to think about shots you will need," McIlroy said. "It would be nice to knock off a couple of wins before going to Augusta."
And there it was again: the restless pursuit of ambition and perfection.