THE world’s best golfer is back. And, on the strength of a scintillating opening nine-under-par 63 in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic that was described as “sublime” by playing partner Stephen Gallacher, it might only be a matter of time before Rory McIlroy reclaims that position officially again from Tiger Woods in the global rankings.
Looking as though he belonged in the exalted company of both Woods and McIlroy in the day’s marquee group, Gallacher launched his defence of the title at the Emirates Golf Club with a splendid six-under-par 66.
His round, which was illuminated by an eagle at the 18th – his ninth – drew praise from the pacesetter.
“Stephen played well today – shooting six-under is a great way to start his defence,” observed McIlroy.
In a better-ball of 59 – the trio had just one dropped shot between them – Woods was also pretty pleased with his 68.
An opening birdie at the par-5 tenth helping him to immediately forget last Saturday’s 79 in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, although, after reaching the turn in four-under, the birdies then dried up for the two-times winner.
He was left five shots adrift of McIlroy on a day that belonged to the 24-year-old Northern Irishman, even though a three-shot lead he held for most of the afternoon was trimmed to a couple late on as Edoardo Molinari, the former Scottish Open champion, came in with a 65 to confirm his gradual recovery from a career-threatening wrist injury that required surgery last year.
McIlroy should already have won his first event of 2014. He would have arrived here as the HSBC Abu Dhabi champion but for a careless mistake in the third round just under a fortnight ago that landed him with a two-shot penalty for a rules infringement.
Nevertheless, the Northern Irishman served notice in that event, especially in the way he drove the ball on a US Open-style course, that a special year could be in the offing.
McIlroy has clearly turned the corner after a frustrating 2013 campaign that only produced one bright note – an Australian Open win in Melbourne in the dying embers of the year.
McIlroy used the break between the opening leg of the European Tour’s Middle East Swing and this event, the last of the three tournaments, to practice at the nearby Els Club, where he shot a ten-under-par 62 in one round.
With the driver working imperiously again yesterday and his iron play just as impressive, McIlroy had that number in his sights once more after covering his first 12 holes in eight-under. “I wanted to shoot two 62s in one week, but it wasn’t quite possible,” said the two-times major winner, although he certainly wasn’t grumbling, having signed for his best score since carding just such a 62 when winning the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow in May 2010.
“I drove it well, hitting it long and straight to give myself a lot of wedges into greens,” he said, although the “highlight” was a majestic 3-wood that set up an eagle-3 at the third, his 12th.
“My distance control was better [than Abu Dhabi] and, though my wedges [he has four in his bag this week ranging from 47 to 59 degrees] are still not where I want them to be, it’s getting close.”
McIlroy described the round as “definitely up there with the best in a while” before highlighting the effort it has taken on the range to get back to swinging the golf club the way he was when he looked a class apart at the end of 2012.
He said: “It may feel easy and these scores may, you know, look somewhat routine but there’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes to actually be able to go out and shoot scores like this.”
His take on trying to become world No 1 again, having slipped to sixth in the past year, was interesting. “Obviously it’s a goal to get back there. But it’s more of an ego boost than anything else. You see yourself up there and you feel good about yourself but it doesn’t really matter. It’s a byproduct of playing well and giving yourself chances to win tournaments. More important goals to concentrate on aren’t anything to do with results or anything to do with finishes in tournaments or wins. It’s to do with wanting to improve in my game. If I can do that, then then all the rest of the stuff I feel will take care of itself.”
It was the second time in the space of a week that Woods had seen one of his playing partners shoot 63 after Jordan Spieth also upstaged the 14-times major winner in the second round of the Farmers Insurance Open last Friday. Not that Woods seemed too bothered to find himself playing catch-up with McIlroy straight away as he found more positives than negatives in his morning’s work.
“I’m going to work on a couple of things here and there, but I feel like it was a good day,” said Woods, who hit seven of 14 fairways – five fewer than McIlroy – and ten of 18 greens in regulation. “I could have got a couple more out of it, just by making a couple of putts from about 10 feet or so. I hit a lot of good putts, which was nice. Last week I didn’t do it. It was nice to actually play well again.”
If he keeps playing like this, McIlroy will definitely be the man to beat in this year’s majors. Woods, though, is confident that he can finally reignite his career in the majors thanks to a process that his seen him shorten his swing with coach Sean Foley.
“We didn’t like where it was with my last coach [Hank Haney], it got way too long,” he said. “I’ve always played my best when In my younger days on Tour, it was even shorter than it is now. Only difference is I can’t wheel on it like I used to. If I did that now, I’d destroy the knee just like I did before, which is why I had so many operations on it.”
Trying to keep up with McIlroy could be the latest danger to his fitness.