RORY McIlroy’s ominous presence on the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship leaderboard has left Scotland’s Craig Lee, pipped in a play-off for the European Masters, with a tough task to land his maiden European Tour title, though that will remain a possibility if the 36-year-old continues to putt like a demon.
Lee carded a five-under 67 to share the lead at the halfway stage with Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello.
“I think Santa has brought me a new putting stroke for Christmas,” said Lee after another good day on the lightning-fast greens. “I don’t know what’s happening out there but I’m holing a lot of putts and that’s definitely the difference.”
A new Odyssey putter has played its part in Lee setting up the possibility of a sensational start to the year, as has his decision to install an artificial grass putting green in the front garden of his house in Bridge of Allan.
“My brother, Stephen, installed it at the end of last year and that’s made a difference as I’ve been able to keep putting every day,” he revealed. “It’s 20 feet by 14 feet and the neighbours have had a bit of fun peering over the fence watching me. I can put on as many cagoules as I want and not worry too much about the weather.”
If the contrast in body language alone is anything to go by, watch out for McIlroy winning at least one major in 2014.
Twelve months ago, almost every blow he hit over two days in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship ended with him crumpled in anguish over his new Nike clubs.
Playing so poorly as he missed the cut left him totally deflated and signalled a disappointing season, one that was only lit up in its dying embers when McIlroy won the Australian Open in December.
Back at Abu Dhabi Golf Club to start his 2014 campaign in the same event, the 24-year-old’s finishing position following just about every full-blooded swing so far has been like night and day. His driving in particular has been imperious. At the par-5 18th in yesterday’s second round, he boomed one 40 yards past Open champion Phil Mickelson. Earlier, at the 14th, McIlroy had muscled his second out of the left rough to just over a foot, setting up another birdie.
He’s had just one blemish – a double-bogey 6 at the sixth yesterday – and, on seven-under, sits only two shots behind Lee and Bello heading into the weekend. A winning start to the year could well be on the cards for McIlroy. Even if someone else walks away with the title, though, he is already licking his lips over the bigger fish he will have to fry later in the season.
“Coming off the last green after 36 holes last year, I was deflated to say the least,” he admitted after coming home in 31 on his second circuit on this occasion as he signed for a five-under-par 67. “The week didn’t go as how I imagined it or how I planned.
“But it’s much better this year. I’m happy with how I’m playing. I’m striking the ball really well. I got a few putts to drop on the back nine, which was nice. It’s a great position to be in and, if I can keep hitting it the way I have been, I’ve got a great chance to win in this tournament.”
McIlroy and Mickelson both worked out in the gym yesterday morning. Their 19-year age gap, though, was there for all to see when they got out on the course. McIlroy didn’t pick the right words when he said their difference in driving yardage was due to Mickelson being “on the decline” but defending champion Jamie Donaldson, no slouch himself off the tee, was the third member in the group over two days and he, too, looked to be playing a different golf course to McIlroy at times.
“When I’m driving like that, it gives me a big advantage,” confessed the two-times major winner McIlroy. “I’m hitting shorter irons into greens and I’m able to hit the par-5s like the last there in two. That’s why I like golf courses like that where I can use it to my advantage and make a better score because of it. I already feel that I can take a lot from it [this event] due to the fact I don’t feel I’ve struck the ball this well in a long time.” On what winning here could signal for the months ahead, he added: “I feel like a strong start to the season can really get you some momentum.”
Mickelson, who, on a more encouraging day than his birdie-free opening effort, chipped in at the 14th then rolled in an 18-footer at the last for birdie to sit one-under, expects McIlroy to have a “good weekend” after watching him at close quarters over 36 holes.
“Rory’s back nine effort was really impressive and that was just a beautiful nine holes of golf,” said Mickelson. “He’s really striking the ball well and his game looks extremely sharp. Hs iron play was so much better today than yesterday but then his driving has been impeccable these two days.”
Cabrera-Bello bogeyed the last for a 68 to relinquish the outright lead, with English duo Danny Willett (63) and Tommy Fleetwood (65) one and three shots respectively behind the two halfway pacesetters. Ricardo Gonzalez (66) and Thomas Bjorn (67) are also on seven-under, but, with due respect to all the others, the eyes of the golfing world this weekend will be on Rory McIlroy.