He might have been furious to miss two short birdie putts on the last two greens but after a surreal day alongside pal Rory McIlroy that brought him his first competitive hole in one, Shane Lowry was quietly pleased to remain in contention for the DP World Tour Championship and what could be the biggest weekend of his career.
He didn’t have a side bet with his former Ireland team mate — “I wouldn’t be that stupid,” he joked — but he did shoot a 71 to McIlroy’s up and down 70 to go into the weekend just three strokes behind halfway leader Henrik Stenson on seven under par.
As the Swedish defending champion Henrik Stenson carded a 66 to lead by two strokes on 10 under par from McIlroy (70), Scot Richie Ramsay (69) and England's Danny Willett (67), Lowry is tied fo fifth with Thorbjorn Olesen, Justin Rose, Kristoffer Borberg and Rafa Cabrera Bello on seven under par and on course for the Top 13 finish he needs to win an early invitation to the Masters by climbing into the Top 50 in the world. A win would be worth second place in the Race to Dubai behind McIlroy and more than $2m if you include Bonus Pool money.
His ace at the 13th, where he holed out with a six iron from 183 yards, earned him two nights and dinner for two at Dubai’s Hotel Atlantis — not quite the Rolex he was hoping for — but it was an important moment in the day as it got him back into the red after a fraught start to his round.
"It's right where you want to be,” said Lowry, who didn’t make his first par until the fifth after starting bogey-birdie-bogey-bogey amongst the Rory mania. “I'm not sure where Henrik is in the world but he is not far off world No 1. He's up there and Justin Rose is up there as well.
"But I feel like I belong up there and if I can play a little bit better than I played today and hole a few putts, you never know what might happen at the weekend.”
Lowry drove right into the desert at the first and bogeyed as McIlroy made birdie to move two strokes ahead of him.
But while he got up and down impressively from a bunker for a birdie four a the second, he hit an average pitch following a poor approach to the third and bogeyed before dropping another shot at the 245-yard fourth by bunkering his tee shot left.
“Anxious more than anything else,” said Lowry, who shot 66 on Thursday to share the first round lead with McIlroy. “At the end of the day, he’s the World No 1 and there’s a bit of a circus that goes with it. A lot of cameras, a lot of noise, some stuff that I’m not used to.
“For the first few holes I wasn’t dealing too well with it but I managed to play okay from the seventh or eighth onwards.
“To shoot under par is always quite pleasing when you play like that. I didn’t want to go out there and shoot 74 today, if you know what I mean.
“I’ve a decent chance going into the weekend, although Rory is up there and he likes this place. We’ll see, I’ll have to shoot two decent scores.”
After taking 31 putts, he added: “I putted very poorly all day. I couldn’t see the lines. The start I got off to didn’t help me … I was a bit edgy. I felt like I got into it around seven, eight, nine, played them lovely. Ten, hit two lovely shots, then two lovely shots into 12. I was playing quite nicely.
“Struggled with my driver again and struggled on the greens, so to shoot under par while doing that is not too bad, I suppose.”
Playing his 10th event in 12 weeks is a handicap for Lowry, who was hampered by stomach cramps early on the back nine.
“I couldn’t really eat or drink anything the last few holes and didn’t feel great,” he said. “That’s no excuse, I still played the holes well but I didn’t feel great all day. Yet I’ll be grand, I can rest-up tonight. Energy won’t be a problem. If you can’t get yourself up for this weekend, you’ll never get yourself up for anything.”
Camera noises and constant movement is one thing but as Friday is a day off in the UAE, a rousing rendition of an Irish folk song came as a surprise to him.
“I was hitting my second shot at 16 and I could hear them singing the ‘Fields of Athenry’ in the bar,” chuckled Lowry, who struggled with stomach cramps on the back nine. “I was like ‘at least someone’s having fun.”
As for his ace, he said: “It was a beautiful shot, a perfect number for my six iron. It’s my first one in tournament play and only my second-ever hole-in-one so it was pretty exciting. It was hard to go on and play the next hole after it.
“I just didn’t feel comfortable with my driver most of the day. I had the lefts again … but sure I’m sitting in a decent spot, I’m only three off the lead going into the weekend. If you’d have given me this going into the weekend, I’d have taken it.”
McIlroy hit just seven fairways in his 70, following a birdie at the first with three birdies and two bogeys in his last seven holes.
He only parred the 18th after driving into the stream and hit at the par-five seventh what Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley described in television commentary as one of the worst shots he ever seen from the world’s best player.
“A fat, pull, duck hook runner, non-intentional,” was McIlroy’s description of the ugly five-wood that screeched left into the rough.
“We both had our struggles out there, but hopefully we can have better days tomorrow,” he said of his round with Lowry. “I just didn't quite have it. I guess you're going to get rounds like that when you're coming back from a little bit of a layoff. I felt like I did well.”
Wary of Stenson — “He's very comfortable on this golf course obviously — Lowry added: “I grinded out a score which was the main thing. I'm still pretty close to the lead. So there's still 36 holes to go, so I'm still in a good position.”
Graeme McDowell shot 70 to move up to tied 26th, admitting: “It’s not my happiest hunting ground but every spot on the Race to Dubai is a prisoner.”
Still recovering from a bug, Michael Hoey shot 78 to share last place on seven over.
While all this was going on, world No 4 Stenson shot a six under par 66 to take the halfway lead for the second year running.
“Yeah, he's very comfortable on this golf course obviously,” McIlroy said of the danger posed by Stenson. “I can't let him get too far ahead tomorrow. I have to get off to a fast start and try and put a bit of pressure on him. Hopefully I can do that.”
As McIlroy struggled of the tee, Stenson made seven birdies and just a solitary bogey on the fourth hole in a six under par round, confessing that three birdies in his last six holes made it all the more satisfying after he felt he was flagging physically.
“There is still a lot of golf to play and I'm really happy with how I closed this round,” said Stenson, who made a marvellous two-putt birdie from an almost impossible position at the 18th. “Around the 12th hole I felt like I was running out of steam. It was difficult mentally from there on and I had to really focus hard and drag myself over the finish line.
“My putting was the key today. I made some great putts and felt more committed on the lines than yesterday. I came out and under-read a few yesterday in the beginning but managed to dial that in today and hit some solid strokes. So I am pleased with my performance on the greens for sure.”
While Stenson made birdie at the 18th, rolling home a 10 footer to a tight, front right pin having been virtually stymied back right, it was a hole that caught out his Ryder Cup partner Justin Rose.
The Englishman went into the hazard off the tee and then three putted for a closing six to take some of the gloss off a 66 that left him tied for fifth with Lowry and Co.
McIlroy too had few complaints about his grinding 70 and while it lacked the astounding fluidity of his opening 66 — a sensational effort in his first competitive outing for six weeks — his position on the leaderboard made up for any disappointment over what was an up and down round.
“I felt like I did well to grind out a score which was the main thing. I just need to stick to what I’ve been thinking about during my golf swing and not really second guessing myself or doubting myself at all.
“But I started to hit some better shots on the back nine and I'm sure tomorrow I'll hit a few more.”