DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — As Rory McIlroy will now no doubt pronounce: the Dubai Desert Classic doesn’t start until the back nine on Thursday. After a plodding start that featured seven pars and a bogey, the world’s No. 2 player switched into overdrive at the ninth hole and zoomed up the leaderboard with a run of six birdies in seven holes.
It was testament to McIlroy’s genius with a ball and stick, and his growing maturity between the ears, that he was able to keep his frustration under control and turn a ho-hum round into a startling display of ballstriking. He signed off with a tap-in birdie at the par-five 18th to record a six-under 66. He is now 39 under par for his last 13 rounds at the Emirates Golf Club, a run that began with his maiden professional victory in this tournament in 2009.
McIlroy is tied for fourth in a group that includes Thomas Bjorn and Martin Kaymer. They are just three shots behind Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello, who shot an early nine-under 63. Lee Westwood, No. 3 in the world, is three under, and defending champion Alvaro Quiros is two under. Tiger Woods’s Abu Dhabi nemesis, Robert Rock, got a reality check with a one-over 73.
McIlroy said that the secret to his supercharged back nine was asking his caddie, J. P. Fitzgerald, to help him read the greens. It’s a tactic he said he often uses on the particularly grainy greens in the Middle East, Asia and Florida.
“It’s just good to get a second opinion,” he said. “I made a good putt on nine that started the ball rolling and then hit two great shots into 10 to keep the momentum going.”
He said he was trying not to be distracted by Cabrera-Bello’s 63 but admitted that it was impossible not to see it on the leaderboard.
“It’s the first day, so you shouldn’t really be thinking about what score is being posted on the leaderboard,” he said. “But of course you see nine under on the board early and you’re sort of thinking you have to get off to a fast start so you are not too far behind.”
So McIlroy’s sluggish start was not exactly what he had in mind.
“You just have to stay patient and know that if you hit some good shots, your opportunities will come.”
And boy, did they ever.
“Six under is a great start and three shots [behind] in 54 holes isn’t much,” he said.
Two groups behind McIlroy were John Daly (age 45), Fred Couples (52) and Colin Montgomerie (48). Putting the Classic into the Dubai Desert Classic, the Golden Oldies three ball pulled along a decent throng through the sand and palm trees set against Dubai’s Manhattan-like skyline.
When Couples first came to Dubai in 1994, he wasn’t long removed from spending 16 weeks as No. 1 after winning the Masters in 1992. He won here in 1995 and returned the following year but hasn’t been back since. That’s a long 16 years, but he still has one of the most beautifully relaxed and rhythmically perfect swings the game has ever seen.
Montgomerie and Daly, too, are students of golf au naturel, their minds free from the advanced science taught by techno-babbling swing gurus. They are still a joy to watch even though they have all but fallen off the charts as far as the world rankings are concerned. Couples languishes at 364th, Montgomerie is 303rd while Daly jumped about 200 places to 309th courtesy of his fourth place at last week’s Qatar Masters. Couples stated that his goal was simply to make the cut. He is nicely placed at two under par and won the bragging rights over his wrinkly pals as Daly and Montgomerie holed out for one-under-par 71s.
Monty was his usual mix of harrumphs and chuckles and grins and grimaces. He is golf’s Eeyore. Daly was sporting his now infamous bad taste in fashion with blue spiral-patterned Jackson Pollock pants. Couples had his girlfriend as caddie, and the happy Couples couple have been taking in the traditional Arabian cultural tourist traps – namely the Mall of the Emirates and its indoor ski slope.
“We were laughing on the range that Daly is the youngest guy in our group, and that's not going to happen very long anymore in his life,” Couples said. “When you play with John, you see great ballstriking. So for me to get Monty and John, it's a little relaxing. I would love to play with their top players, Robert Rock or Rory McIlroy or Lee Westwood, but for me personally those days are a little bit gone.
“Maybe Monty does, but I certainly don't need to come over here and play with Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy on the first two rounds. I don't deserve that pairing. Maybe Saturday!” Couples said with a laugh.