Rory McIlroy talked at last year’s Scottish Open about how he needed to “take ownership” of his putting and, though still receiving some input, the four-time major winner is starting to see positive results from that decision to stop himself becoming “bogged down in technical thoughts” on the greens.
In making his hugely encouraging return after a three-month break - a bogey-free seven-under-par 65 in the opening round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic was seamless after he’d finished joint-third on 18-under in Abu Dhabi last week - McIlroy is beginning to see some putts dropping again.
That wasn’t the case for most of last season - his first campaign since 2008 that didn’t include a win - and it probably had reached crisis point at Dundonald Links, where the Ulsterman arrived early after a missed cut the previous week in the Irish Open armed with two putters yet was unable to avoid a similar early exit on the Ayrshire coast.
“I have taken ownership of it but, at the same time, I’ve worked hard with Phil Kenyon,” admitted McIlroy, a two-time winner here, after taking up where he’d left off last week to sit handily placed on a day when Welshman Jamie Donaldson led a low-scoring spree with a 10-under-par 62 on the Majlis Course at Emirates Golf Club.
“I have to give him a little bit of credit because we’ve done a lot of work in the off‑season and it’s been really good. I’ve been very disciplined with it and stuck to the same routine. I feel like I’m stroking it really well and every putt that I’m hitting looks like it has a chance.”
A new pre-shot routine, which includes him using a line on his ball to help with alignment, is reaping rewards. “I’m going to be very disciplined with using the line on the ball,” he added. “It makes it easier for me to line up better and frees me up in terms of making a good stroke.
“I started using it a little bit in 2014. Actually I had my best ever putting round on the PGA Tour using the line, it was the first round at Memorial in 2014. It’s always been something I’ve been in and out of but I feel like I putt my best with it, so I want to be consistent with it now.”
A few more putts could easily have dropped in this opening round but McIlroy wasn’t complaining. He’d talked on the eve of this event about how last week’s performance had put a “spring back in my step” and he’ll be bouncing up Magnolia Lane in the first week of April if he keeps up this level of golf in the six more events he plans to play after this one in preparation for his fourth attempt to complete golf’s career Grand Slam by winning The Masters.
“I’m really happy with that,” he declared of being 25-under for his first five rounds of the year. “Averaging 67, that’s pretty good. That’s exceeded expectations a little bit. I didn’t really know how I was going to feel or how quickly I was going to get back into the mind‑set of playing competitive golf. That has been nice.
“My chipping’s been good, allowing me to scramble, as I did when holing a long one at 12 today after plugging it in the bunker off the tee. My attitude has also been good. I’m not getting ahead of myself and not putting too much pressure on myself. I’m managing my game really well. I feel really enthusiastic, really happy with where my head is at at the minute.”
Also benefitting from working with Kenyon, Donaldson had the European Tour’s first 59 in his sights after making an eagle and nine birdies, including four in a row, in the first 16 holes before finishing par-bogey. That dropped shot at the last also prevented him from equalling the course record, set by Ernie Els back in 1994.
“I fancied it,” admitted Donaldson, who clinched victory for Europe in the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. “Everybody wants to shoot 59 and, with five holes to go, I started thinking about 59. That’s gone now, so it’s just a case of more of the same moving on.”
On a day when more than 100 players took advantage of perfect conditions to break par, Donaldson’s effort left him a shot ahead of David Horsey and Anthony Wall, with another Englishman, Tyrrell Hatton, one further behind in fourth.
Playing in the same group as McIlroy, defending champion Sergio Garcia opened with a 67 to also sit close to the lead but Danny Willett, the 2016 winner, finished 7-8 as he slumped to a 77 to sit last in the 132-strong field.
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