As McIlroy and McGrane bloom, Lawrie and Harrington dry up in the desert
Damien McGrane birdies the 15th in the first round in Dubai. Picture: Eoin Clarke

Damien McGrane birdies the 15th in the first round in Dubai. Picture: Eoin Clarke

Damien McGrane fired a six under par 66 to trail a "sublime" Rory McIlroy by three shots after the opening round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

But it was another disappointing day for Peter Lawrie and Pádraig Harrington in the desert, albeit on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Lawrie, who won his first European Tour event just a fortnight after his close friend McGrane broke his duck in April 2008, appeared to be heading for a respectable opening round in Dubai when he got to one under par with five holes to go.

A double bogey at his 14th hole was all it took to dash his hopes of a decent start and after a bogey at the next he then double bogeyed his penultimate hole to card a four over 76 that leaves him tied for 120th entering the second round.

It's been a nightmare six months for the once arrow-straight Lawrie, who hit just three fairway at the Emirates Golf Club and has made just two cuts in 16 starts since he finished 10th in last June's Irish Open at Carton House.

The last time he played a weekend round was at the season-ending Perth International, where he came tied 18th to avoid a trip to the Q-School.

Since then, he's 31 over par for his last 11 tour rounds and until he starts finding fairways again, it's tough to see where the pain will end.

Like Lawrie and McGrane, Harrington's last great season came in 2008, when he won back to back major titles to soar as high as third in the world.

He won on the Asian Tour in 2010 but his troubles have been well-chronicled with the ban on square grooves and a deterioration in his short game and putting leading to a slide to 130th in the world today.

Playing his third event of the season and his first on the PGA Tour this year, he again failed to fire with either his wedges or the putter and opened with a two over 73 in the Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Arizona.

That leaves him tied for 103rd nine strokes adrift of clubhouse leaders YE Yang and Bubba Watson, who shot seven under par 64s as defending champion Phil Mickelson — battling a back problem — struggled to a 71.

While McIlroy cruised effortlessly to his lowest tour round for three years, Harrington simply had no spark on the greens and little sharpness with his wedges.

Yet his tally of 31 putts does not tell the whole story. 

Having missed three half-chances in the 12-18 foot range and saved par from nine feet, he finally dipped under par when he sank a 30 footer for birdie at his fifth hole of the day, the 14th.

After dropping a shot at the par three 16th, where he overshot the green, he saved par from just inside 10 feet at the 18th and again from a similar distance at the first but never looked like going low.

Rory McIlroy watches Tiger Woods drive at the eighth. Woods shot a 68, despite struggling off the tee at time. Picture Eoin Clarke

Rory McIlroy watches Tiger Woods drive at the eighth. Woods shot a 68, despite struggling off the tee at time. Picture Eoin Clarke

Two-putt pars from the 15-35 feet range at the next four holes were followed by back to back bogeys that leave him facing a challenge to avoid a second successive missed cut following his failure in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago.

At the sixth, his 15th, he drove into sand and failed to save par from 12 feet while at the next, he left his tee shot 60 feet from the hole and three-putted.

Dogged campaigner McGrane, on the other hand, played a superb round to find himself in a five-way tie for third behind McIlroy, whose 63 left him two clear of Italy Edoardo Molinari on nine under.

Birdies at the second, fourth and fifth got the Kells man off and running and while he bogeyed the uphill eighth, he made a rare birdie at the tough ninth and eagled the par-five 10th before following seven straight pars with a birdie four to finish.

His tally of 15 greens in regulation said it all about the quality of his driving and his ball-striking from the fairway while his conversion rate with the putter was key

Considering he is giving McIlroy close to 40 yards off the tee, his score was a thing of beauty on a day when Shane Lowry chipped some more rust off his game with a 70.

That matched Michael Hoey and left the Clara man tied for 35th with Gareth Maybin in joint 52nd after a 71.

Simon Thornton couldn't make a birdie in a three over 75 that left him tied for 111th and, like Lawrie, struggling to make the cut.

As for McIlroy, the world No 6 made the game look easy and still insisted he could play better with improved wedge play.

Confessing that he drove the ball even better than he did in Abu Dhabi, he said: "Wedges are still not where I want them to be but it's getting close. 

"I feel like I have a new wedge in my bag you can see how I'm driving it, I'm leaving myself a lot of wedges into the green and having that extra wedge is going to help in the long run I feel."

He hasn't stopped working hard on his game since he started to turn things around last autumn and while his scores may look effortless, he was at pains to point out how tough it really is to perform at that level.

"I don't think it's ever easy," he said. "It can feel easier than it has done in the past, but you still have to work hard. 

"I realise that I've worked really hard in the last couple of months to get to this point and I've realised what I needed to work on, what I need to base my game on and around.

"It takes a lot of hard work and it takes a lot of hard work to maintain these levels, too.

"Okay, it may feel easy and these scores may, you know, look somewhat routine out there.

"But there's a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes to actually be able to go out ask shoot scores like this."

Harrington and Lawrie work hard too - harder than most - but for now the game is tougher than ever and 2008 feels like a long, long time ago.