THOMAS Bjorn issued a timely reminder of what happened five months ago after joining Rory McIlroy in the halfway lead at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic yesterday.
Northern Ireland’s US Open champion justified his position as favourite by adding a 65 to his first round 66 to reach 13 under par.
But 40-year-old Bjorn has matched him shot-for-shot so far and now finds himself in a battle with not only the world number two, but golf’s third- and fourth-ranked players as well.
Martin Kaymer had the first hole-in-one of his life on the 186-yard seventh – his 16th – as he reached 11 under with a 67, while Lee Westwood’s 65 for 10 under included birdies on the last three holes.
“They are people capable of amazing things, but I won in Switzerland with those three on the leaderboard and that’s not long ago,” the Dane said.
Bjorn’s victory in the European Masters last September – his third of a season which totally re-ignited his career – came with a dazzling closing round of 62, his joint lowest in a European Tour career that goes back 16 years.
He beat second-placed Kaymer by four, third-placed McIlroy by five and sixth-placed Westwood by six.
“It’s very easy to get impressed by the way they play the game, but you’ve got to go out and focus on your own game,” said Bjorn, who also has the memory of beating Tiger Woods head-to-head on the Emirates course in 2001 with a 22-under-par total which still stands as the tournament record.
McIlroy, though, is back at the scene of his first professional victory three years ago and in his last eight events – a run that started in Switzerland – he has only once finished outside the top four.
The 22-year-old overtook first round leader Rafael Cabrera-Bello by covering the back nine in four under 33, chipping in at the 359-yard 17th.
For the second day running, he then missed an eagle chance of under ten feet on the 18th but, after failing to hole a five-foot birdie chance on the first, he then picked up more strokes on the third, sixth and eighth.
“I feel like I played a lot better,” he said. “I started off very solidly and just kept picking up birdies along the way. I’m a lot more confident off the tee and reading the greens better. It puts me in a great position and I’m very excited for the weekend.”
Cabrera-Bello’s 69 left him in third place only one off the pace, while Kaymer shares fourth spot with Scotland’s Scott Jamieson and Frenchman Gregory Bourdy.
“Now I’m part of the hole-in-one family,” Kaymer said after an eight-iron shot that won a watch, not for himself but for his physio because of a bet they have every week.
It was the second ace of the week. Scot Stephen Gallacher won a car for his at the 190-yard 15th in his opening 69 and by adding a 65 he is alongside Westwood and Kaymer’s fellow German Marcel Siem in seventh place.
Former winner Henrik Stenson’s 64 was the round of the day, while Abu Dhabi winner Robert Rock improved six strokes on his opening 73 to stand four under. Colin Montgomerie, Tom Lewis and defending champion Alvaro Quiros are among those on the same mark, while Sunday’s Qatar Masters champion, Paul Lawrie, is one further back.
The cut fell at one under and so four more previous holders of the title – Mark O’Meara, Fred Couples, David Howell and Migual Angel Jimenez – made it through with nothing to spare, as did John Daly after a 72 that began with him taking six on the long 10th and then a quadruple bogey eight at the 467-yard 12th. The American came back from that with seven birdies to show that his fourth place finish last weekend was no fluke.
Former Open champion Ben Curtis is just happy to be playing at the weekend in Dubai after poor form last season cost him his US PGA Tour card. The American missed the cut in more than half of the events he played in 2011 and hasn’t had a win since 2006. With two years left on his 10-year European Tour exemption after winning the 2003 Open, Curtis has started this year by playing the tour’s desert swing. After finishing 48th in Abu Dhabi and 47th in Qatar, he has improved this week. He made five birdies on his way to a 5-under 67 to reach 7 under.
“My thinking is play wherever I can and got to play good,” said Curtis, who expects to play 15 to 20 times in the United States this year. “I’m trying to take it one week at a time and play solid and not focusing on what everyone else is doing. Just trying to play good golf for myself and hopefully that will lead to good results.”