HE’S become more relaxed thanks to a one-year-old. Today, it’s the world No 1 that Marc Warren has in his sights in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Heading into the third round at the Emirates Golf Club, Warren is Rory McIlroy’s nearest challenger, trailing the four-times major champion by just a shot.
Warren’s morning 65, which contained nine birdies, set the halfway target of 13-under-par on the Majlis Course. It stood for nearly four hours before McIlroy finished with a hat-trick of birdies in a flawless 64.
Former US Open champion Graeme McDowell is a shot further back, together with unheralded Englishman Seve Benson. Hat-trick-seeking Stephen Gallacher is in the group on 11-under – Lee Westwood, too – after bouncing back brilliantly from a double-bogey with four birdies in the last six holes for a 67.
McIlroy, though, is undoubtedly the man to beat. He’s on a mission after three successive runner-up finishes, most recently in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship a fortnight ago.
The 25-year-old also wants to get a win under his belt before appearing in the witness box in the High Court in Dublin next week over a dispute with his former management company.
He’s keen to taste success again, too, before embarking on his 2015 PGA Tour campaign, the next step in his preparation for a bid to complete the career Grand Slam at The Masters in April.
His last victory may have been back in August – the US PGA Championship – but McIlroy has been consistently good since the sensational summer campaign that also landed him the Open Championship, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the BMW PGA Championship.
“I saw a stat yesterday that showed from the first round of The Open I’ve played 45 rounds and a third of them were 66 or better,” he said. “That shows you the level that I’m sort of at and just very comfortable with my game. I’ve put the hard work in and this is the result, which is nice.”
McIlroy won this event in 2011. He played with Gallacher in the final group 12 months ago, overturned a two-shot deficit only to falter around the turn as the Scot became the first player to lift the title back-to-back. He’s determined to keep his nose in front this time around.
“It’s a very bunched leaderboard so I know I’m going to have to go out there and make a bunch of birdies over the weekend like I have the first two days,” said McIlroy. “But this course suits my aggressive game style. You can fire at pins with the high ball flight that I have. It sort of plays into my hands.”
It’s the second time in around two months that McIlroy and Warren will have played together in these parts. Separated by a shot and lying in the top ten heading into the final round of the DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Estates in November, McIlroy shot a 68 to the Scot’s 73.
“Marc has become a lot more consistent,” noted McIlroy of his playing partner again today. “He’s obviously had wins but there’s been times where he has struggled a bit. It’s good that he’s playing well and it will be a fun weekend.”
Part of the reason Warren has achieved that consistency is his son, Archie. The one-year-old greeted dad with a huge smile when he came out of the recorder’s hut yesterday and Warren admitted he’s a changed man since Archie came on the scene.
“I used to be someone who was guilty of over-thinking things at night but now I’m a totally different person,” said the 33-year-old. “Whether I play good or bad, having Archie there allows me to leave it behind.”
It’s mainly good stuff Warren is producing these days. He’s 30-under-par for his last five rounds – 65-67-67-66-65 – and has given himself a chance to one better just a week after finishing runner-up in the Qatar Masters.
Warren has improved every year since losing his card in 2010 and now looks as though he’s ready to move up into that top level after starting to work with Alan McCloskey, who also coaches Gallacher. “Alan is the sort of coach who teaches players to teach themselves,” said Warren of the Bothwell Castle-based PGA professional. “We are all after the perfect swing, but it’s not possible. I was guilty of thinking that it was in the past.”
While McIlroy might be hard to catch, gutsy Gallacher isn’t about to give up his trophy without a fight.
That was evident as he dug deep following his setback at the 12th, where he found a footprint in the desert and from there hit it in a bush.
“That was the strongest I think I’ve played around here,” said the Lothians man, which is saying something considering he’s now 66-under-par for his last 14 rounds here.
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