Luke Donald picked up where he left off in more ways than one in Dubai yesterday but, as so often in the recent past, it may yet turn out to be Rory McIlroy’s week.
Donald leads the European Tour’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship after opening the £6 million event with a seven-under-par 65. It was a continuation of the form he showed not only when he won in Japan on Sunday, but also when he closed with two 66s on the Earth course last December.
McIlroy is only one stroke back, however, and that after driving in the water on the long final hole and having to settle for a par there and an inward half of 31.
It sets up the possibility of the world’s top two players having a shootout at the weekend, Donald having gone back to second in the rankings ahead of Tiger Woods with his victory at the Dunlop Phoenix tournament.
“There’s always a buzz playing in the last group and, if I play well again, hopefully we’ll get a chance,” said McIlroy, who is in joint second place with Scot Marc Warren and Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano.
Not that the No 1 spot or the Tour’s Order of Merit title would be at stake. The 23-year-old Ulsterman has huge leads in both and has already emulated Donald’s 2011 feat of topping the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic. If the Englishman can win, though, both would end 2012 with four victories – the big difference, of course, being that one of McIlroy’s was his second major. Donald has yet to break his duck.
On the possible head-to-head between the pair, Donald said: “I’d love the challenge. It would be fun for us, fun for the fans and obviously fun for TV. It would be a great way to end the year.”
The 34-year-old packed his seven birdies into ten holes from the fifth and commented: “That middle part, I really swung the ball well and made a lot of putts – I felt like I couldn’t miss.
“You always feel different the week after winning. You just feel like you have that little extra pep in your step and there’s a bit more confidence flowing through you for sure – especially winning by five as I did.”
Last season, third place was good enough for Donald to hold off McIlroy in the “Race to Dubai” but now he has only the tournament to think about. “There was a lot more at stake last year, so I felt a little bit more pressure. This time it definitely feels a little bit easier,” he added.
McIlroy turned at just one under but then birdied the tenth and 12th and had three more in a row from the long 14th. Warren matched Donald’s seven birdies but bogeyed the short 13th. At 189th in the world, he is one of the lowest-ranked players in a field reduced to 56 when Ireland’s Shane Lowry withdrew before the start with a virus.
The tournament is meant to be for the circuit’s leading 60 money-winners this year, but Thomas Bjorn and Retief Goosen have injuries and Ross Fisher is preparing for next week’s PGA Tour qualifying school.
Six players are tied for fifth – 2009 winner Lee Westwood, Ryder Cup hero Martin Kaymer, Padraig Harrington, Richie Ramsay, Louis Oosthuizen and Fredrik Andersson Hed.