Brian Keogh in Dubai
It might look like one of the greatest mismatches in sport but when world No. 319 Damien McGrane stands on the first tee with No 1 Tiger Woods at the Emirates Club at one o’clock today, no-one who knows him has any doubt that the Kells native will be doing his own thing.
Dogged, single-minded and always playing to his strengths, McGrane will pitch up for the clash of Superman versus Supergrinder with the same attitude that has taken him from the professional’s shop at Wexford to the higher echelons of the European Tour.
“Damien won’t be worried about playing with Tiger,” said Darren Clarke after missing the cut. “I don’t think it will bother him in the slightest. He just does his thing and gets one with it.”
Playing through a sandstorm that had been whipped up by the Persian Gulf’s famous shamal wind, the 36-year-old Irishman equalled the second best score of the day - a three-under par 69 - to lie just one stroke behind the game’s greatest exponent on seven under par at the halfway stage with defending champion Henrik Stenson and Thomas Levet of France a shot further back.
The contrast between the two could not be greater with Woods closing in on a billion dollars in earnings and chasing his 85th professional victory here while McGrane’s has yet to better his third place finish in last year's French Open.
When asked if he’d come across McGrane before, Woods said: “No, I have not. I know he’s Irish but that’s about it.”
McGrane has never met the world number 1 either and when asked what he thought he had in common with him, he said: “Well, we had dinner in the steak house the other night. That’s about it!”
If he was excited by the prospect, McGrane concealed it well though his sisters Erin and Roisin were hastily erasing photographs from their digitial camera to make room for “a few more of the scoreboard” where their brother’s name figured just below that of Woods.
“I think everyone here would love to play with Tiger,” McGrane said, after an impressive round that featured an eagle, three birdies and just two bogeys. “I'm sure it's something that is going to be very different, it will be a different experience, again.
“It's an experience I haven't had before playing with a player of his stature. I suppose there's nobody bigger in the game, is there. So it has to be a new experience for me.
“But he has his game and I have my game, and I try to do the best with what I have. This what it's about, isn't it? This is why we practice so hard and why we work continuously to improve what we do.”
Asked if he thought he’d be nervous, McGrane added: “I hope not. Golf is a difficult game for me and obviously I have to make the most of what I do. I play my own game and no matter who I am playing with, whether it’s yourself or Tiger, I have to try and do the same thing, play my own game and hopefully the numbers will add up correctly at the end of the day.”
While he will be outdriven by more than 30 yards today, McGrane showed that he can still rub shoulders with the best of them yesterday as he compiled a magnificent round that was bettered only by Jean-Baptiste Gonnet’s 68.
Starting on the back nine, he chipped and putted for birdies at the par-five 10th and 13th holes to get to six under par, bogeyed the 15th and the first after missing greens right and then played the remaining holes in three under par.
The highlight came at the 568 yard third, where he hit the pin with his three-wood approach from 283 yards and knocked in the resulting four -footer for an eagle three.
“I almost surprised myself,” he said of his eagle. “That was certainly the highlight. It was a tough day, a grinder’s day and I would consider myself something of a grinder.
“I’ve been steady. I’ve haven’t been making too many bogeys. You have to chip and putt when you need it and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
He then hit a five-iron to 20 feet at the short 15th to get to seven under par and looked relieved to get into the warmth of the media centre as the chill wind brought back memories of his days playing the Irish pro-am circuit.
It's been a long road for McGrane from the professional’s shop in Wexford to playing with Woods in the last group of a major European Tour event.
But the 1987 Irish Boys champion from Headfort was at pains to point out that he has come a long way since he firmly established himself on the tour in 2003.
“You know, golf is a tough game and it’s been a long road for me,” he said. “Obviously I still think I am on the correct road moving forward and it’s nice to see my name at the top of the leaderboard.
“But that’s what it’s about, isn’t it. That’s why we practice so hard and why we work continuously to improve what we do. And when we hole a few putts we can be there or thereabouts.
“Wexford for me was a long time ago and it stood me well at the time and I’ve moved on a long ways since then.”
Yet while he’s looking forward to teeing it up with Woods today, McGrane still says his ultimate dream is to win a golf tournament.
“I wouldn’t say it’s my lifelong dream,” he said of his pairing with Woods. “Obviously we all want to play better than Tiger. That’s our ambition, to play alongside him, see how the game is play, see what we should be doing because he sets the mark at the moment.
“What is my dream? I’d like to start by winning a golf tournament. And the obviously I need to get a new dream after that. But my first ambition is to win a golf tournament on the European Tour.”