Irish duo on Tiger's trail

From Brian Keogh in Dubai

Irish duo Gary Murphy and Graeme McDowell joined an 11-man posse chasing a rampant Tiger Woods in the Dubai Desert Classic.

But given the quality of the American’s golf over the past few months, they might have to settle for second best after the world No 1 posted a superb, bogey free 65 to take a two-stroke lead over the field on seven under par.

This was Woods’ 12th consecutive sub-par round and with a stroke average of 67.58 over that period, he looks like a good bet to take his seventh strokeplay victory in eight outings since the WGC - Bridgestone Invitational in August.

On a day when England’s Ian Poulter claimed that he was misquoted in a magazine piece in which he claims that he will be Woods’ closest rival as soon as he plays to his potential, six of Ireland’s seven challengers finished the day in red-figures.

Murphy and McDowell shot five under par 67s to tie for second with Damien McGrane tied 13th on four under after a 68, Peter Lawrie and Rory McIlroy tied 27th after 69s and Paul McGinley just inside the cut mark after a 71.

Darren Clarke was the only exception as he ran up a quadruple bogey nine at his ninth hole, the dangerous 18th, to card a two over par 74.

But while Murphy and McDowell both birdied their last two holes, they know that they have to produce birdies galore to beat Woods when he is in this kind of form.

Coming off back-to-back missed cuts in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, Murphy had five back nine birdies in his 67 with the highlight a raking, three-iron to four feet at his 17th after a poor drive.

“I kept the ball in play and putted nicely,” said Murphy. “It is always good to start with a low round but there is a long way to go. I see God is seven under!”
Starting at the par-five 10th, Woods chipped stone dead from short of the green and picked up two more shots by the turn before turning it on over the more difficult front nine.

A birdie at the first put him four under par and he then rifled a gorgeous seven iron to two feet at the par-three fourth before picking up birdies at the seventh and eighth to take the lead.

Ominously, Woods felt he had hit the ball even better than he had in Torrey Pines last week, where he won by eight shots.

“I am definitely playing better than last week," Woods said, before adding: “I definitely missed a few (putts) today. I had a couple of good opportunities and just kind of ran them over the edge.

"But overall I couldn't ask for a better start. I hit the ball a lot more clean today and shaped the ball better."

Rookie of the Year Kaymer threatened to catch Woods when he got to six under par with one to play but found water at the 18th to drop a stroke and finish in an 11-man tie for second with Murphy and McDowell, Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez, England’s Simon Dyson, Indian duo Jyoti Randhawa and Jeev Milkha Singh, Swede Pelle Edberg, Frenchman Thomas Levet, South African Andrew McLardy and Australian Scott Hend.

McDowell finished with two birdies but he believes that he will need to get to 20 under par, at the very least, if he is to win on tour for the third time.

“I thought four under was a good score but it was nice to finish birdie-birdie,” he said. “But it is going to be a low scoring week and you know that two or three under par is going to be no good.

“It was perfect scoring conditions out there. The par fives are there for the taking and there are plenty of birdies to be made. I left a few out there but I couldn’t have putted much better.

“It’s tough to miss Tiger’s name at the top of the leaderboard there. Awesome after coming over from the west coast. We will be keeping an eye on him but it is going to be low scoring and you will need to shoot five or six under every day.”

McGrane also birdied his last two holes for a four under par 68 that left him tied for 13th, explaining: "Four under par is a good start as I played nicely all day and it's a more realistic score really because if I had of shot two-under I would have been really disappointed.

"The course was there for the taking this morning but you have to hit it close to make the birdies as the greens are very fast.

"So if someone had of handed me a 68 on the first tee I would have snapped their hand off as four under was a decent number if you played well and I played well."

McIlroy birdied the eighth, tenth and 11th to get to three under par but bogeyed the par five 13th and then failed to chip and putt for his birdie at the last.

“It is the same score as I started with last year, a 69,” said McIlroy, before heading to the range. “But I am not very happy with the way I did it. It could have been a lot better but I didn't hit it very well and I am not really trusting my swing.

“It feels to me that when I shape the ball, I can trust it better. When I have a straightforward 170 yard shot with an eight iron, I'd rather work the ball in there rather than fly it in.”

Lawrie also birdied the par-five 18th to be well placed on three under but Paul McGinley was unhappy after three-putting twice in a one under par 71.