Two years ago Rory McIlroy was outscored by Lee Westwood in the first round of the Dubai World Championship and confessed that he was relieved he wouldn’t have to play with his rival for the Race to Dubai title the next day.
Westwood took that as a sign of weakness and went on to win the tournament in imperious fasion, denying McIlroy the chance to win the European money title at the tender age of 20.
Fast forward 15 months and 21-year old McIlroy leads the Dubai Desert Classic by a stroke on 11 under par from South Africa’s Thomas Aiken (67) and a resurgent Sergio Garcia (67) after a second round 68 that underlined just how much he has matured over the past year.
He might be four strokes ahead of Tiger Woods, who surged back into the mix with a best of the day 66, but he respectfully insists that he’s not intimidated by the lurking presence of the former world No 1 and that he’s determined to complete a wire-to-wire win for his second European Tour victory.
“I don’t think you should be intimidated by anyone,” McIlroy said after an afternoon round that tested his patience to the limit. “I believe in myself and I believe in my abilities and if it so happens that I come up against Tiger Woods at the weekend, I will look forward to it.
“It will be a challenge. It will be a big challenge and a new experience for me. But I am going to have to do it sooner or later and to do it on this golf course would be great because it is a course where I have had success before.”
Winner of his maiden title at the Emirates Golf Club two years ago, McIlroy won’t turn 22 until May 4 but he’s far more experienced that his tender years suggest and it’s starting to show.
When he started his second round in the afternoon wave, McIlroy found himself was level with Woods, who had trailed him by nine shots midway through an erratic first round 71.
The American world No 3 closed his opening effort with an eagle three to go into day two six shots behind McIlroy, who had set the pace with a superb 65. But Woods took up where he left off, picking up six shots to finish the day on seven under, two ahead of world No 1 Lee Westwood (70) and three shots better than the world No 2 Martin Kaymer (71).
Aiken set a 10 under par clubhouse target with a second successive 67 but while McIlroy was lucky to escape with a bogey at his second hole and then failed to birdie the par-five third, he stuck to his 2011 play book and resisted the temptation to go flag hunting.
He said: “Maybe this time last year, I might not have been able to dig in and shoot a 68. After the start that I had, especially, I could have let it be 72 or 73. But to stay patient and stay very focussed out there and picked off the birdies when I could to shoot 68. It was a very satisfying round.”
After a two at the seventh and another birdie at the ninth, he stuck to his guns and birdied the 12th and par-three 17th to join Aiken in a share of the lead before showing some of his new-found maturity at the last.
After deciding against going for the green in two - ” I could have got there, it was only 250 yards to the front but there’s no point, there’s still 36 holes left in this golf tournament” - he hit a wedge to eight feet and holed the putt to take the outright lead.
Aiken and Garcia might be his nearest rivals on 10 under with England’s Steve Webster two behind in solo fourth after a second successive 68.
The golf world is licking its lips at the prospect of a Sunday showdown with Woods, who found his short game touch and fired some wonderful iron shots, to share fifth place on seven under. But McIlroy has the blinkers on and he’s confident he see off all comers on a course where he won in wire-to-wire fashion in 2009.
“You have to be confident and believe in yourself,” McIlroy said. “If I step out there on the weekend with whoever it is, I have got to believe that I can win. No matter if it is Tiger or Lee Westwood or Martin Kaymer, you have got to believe that you can go out there and beat them.”
He added: “I can’t see any reason why I can’t win wire-to-wire again. I led all four rounds two years ago and that’s the plan this year. I’ll just keep shooting good scores and if I can do that then there’s no reason why I can’t beat that.”
As for Woods, the American was pleased with his day’s work, explaining: “I hit the ball better today. Felt like I had more control over my shots. More control over my trajectory today. We had some clean greens which was nice, and we hit them perfect this morning, so I think all of us made a few more putts.”
McIlroy wasn’t the only Ulsterman to enjoy a good day.
Belfast’s Michael Hoey bogeyed the ninth but then stormed home in 31, sandwiching birdies at the 11th and 18th between four in a row from the 13th for a 67 that left him tied for fifth with Woods, Anders Hansen, Jean-Baptiste Gonnet and former Irish Open champion Brett Rumford on seven under.
“I was disappointed to bogey nine and didn’t birdie 10 but then I just had a little run there and holed a few putts,” Hoey said. “I was hitting fairways and giving myself chances. You have to hit fairways. It’s a bit like a major. I missed the cut comfortably here last year so I just wanted to play well here this week. It is a good examination of how you are hitting the ball and I am hitting it well this week.”
Darren Clarke shot a 72 for a two under total with Damien McGrane a shot further back after a 71. Peter Lawrie made the even par cut on the mark after a 70 but Paul McGinley (75) missed by four shots with Gareth Maybin’s 73 leaving him near the back of the field on eight over.