Connor Syme 'excited' to be in Hero Dubai Desert Classic mix along with Rory McIlroy
After opening with rounds of 68 and 67 for a nine-under-par total, Syme sits just one shot off the lead at Emirates Golf Club, where the $9 million DP World Tour event is set to finish on Monday after play was hit by flooding on Thursday and Friday.
Englishman Richard Bland, last year’s runner-up and back trying to go one better as a LIV Golf player, shares the lead with Belgian Thomas Pieters and American amateur Michael Thorbjornsen after the opening 36 holes were completed a full later than scheduled.
McIlroy, a two-time winner, is lurking ominously on eight-under alongside Patrick Reed, but, disappointingly, the duo involved in ‘TeeGate’ earlier in the week will not be out together in the penultimate circuit.
“I thought the putt on nine was to play with him (McIlroy) tomorrow, which would have been quite cool as he’s the best golfer in the world,” said Syme, who’d just rolled in a 22-footer at his closing hole to finish birdie-birdie.
After a third-round 64, Syme was a shot off the lead heading into the final circuit in last week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the first leg of a Rolex Series double-header in the United Arab Emirates before having to settle for a tie for 28th behind Edinburgh-based Frenchman Victor Perez.
“It’s been good,” said the 27-year-old of his start to the new season. “I definitely took a lot of confidence from the back end of last season and I’m just trying to play with a care-free attitude and see what happens.
“I love doing what I do and it’s just about trying to play with that freedom as I know that’s when I play my best. It’s been a good start again this week and hopefully we can keep it going this time
“I’ve finished second quite a few times after having chances to win, but last week was different again, sitting one behind in a Rolex Series event. But I’m trying to treat it all the same as that’s where I think you’ll play your best when you get in that mindset.”
Through Niall Horan, who is involved with his management company Modest! Golf, Syme played a practice round with McIlroy at St Andrews ahead of the 2017 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. He’s excited to now have his name up on a leaderboard with him.
“I watched an eight to ten minute video of Rory the other day and even listening to him about being in contention is interesting,” said the Drumoig-based player. “I’m trying to be a sponge and get as much information as I can and learn every time I’m in that position. Yeah, it is exciting.”
Syme’s strong start to the season has coincided with his dad Stuart, who is also coach, being out in the UAE with him. “We did a lot of good work at home. I know the perception that being in Scotland isn’t great, but I have wintered really well and coming out here a week early was just perfect for me,” he said.
“Today was a solid round of golf. I only dropped one shot, which was a three-putt. I was really pleased with how I played - to finish birdie-birdie was a bonus as that side of the course, especially five through nine, isn’t that easy and I’m in a good spot after two days.”
McIlroy, who is in danger of losing his world No 1 spot to in-form Jon Rahm, has the leaders in his sights despite not having his best stuff so far. “Nearly three holes has sort of glossed over everything else,” he said of finishing his opening round with a sensational birdie-eagle-birdie burst to card a 66 but then follow that up with a 70. “It's not been great. Going to do a little bit of work here on the range and try and figure it out.
It's just a little bit of timing. Obviously it's early in the year, first tournament back. Just try to figure something out, go with it over the next two days and see if I can straighten it out.”
On the upside, his short game is still as tidy as it was in 2022. “Yeah, I think that's been a big key to my game over the last sort of 12 months,” admitted the four-time major winner. “My short game has been good. My putting has been good. Even when the long game isn't there, it's been able to bail me out and sort of keep me there or thereabouts.
“I certainly didn't feel like I deserved to shoot six-under when I came off the course yesterday. Today was sort of a little more reflective of how I played. But it would have been nice to get away with a couple birdies at the last two holes, but I thought 70 was probably a fair reflection of how the day went.”
“I’ve never played in this event before,” said Hill. “In 2020 and 2021, I was either second or third reserve and it never moved. So to play it for the first time is good fun. I think I’ve got it a bit softer than it usually is, so it’s a slightly different experience, but I am enjoying it.”
As a total of 87 players made the cut, David Law and Grant Forrest also progressed on four-under while Marc Warren, who finished birdie-birdie, and Scott Jamieson both scraped through on two-under. Others to progress on that mark included Henrik Stenson and Luke Donald, with the deposed and replacement Ryder Cup captains in the same group along with Tyrrell Hatton on Sunday.
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