Rory McIlroy shows of his powerfully built forearms in Abu Dhabi. Picture by Fran Caffrey/www.golffile.ieIt seems like only yesterday that Rory McIlroy was watching Tiger Woods play in Dubai, dashing around the grounds of the Emirates Club with pal Harry Diamond like a couple of schoolboys after the final class of summer term.

That’s what they were, of course, when McIlroy played in the Dubai Desert Classic as a 16-year old schoolboy in 2006. Six years later he’s a major winner and world No 1 in waiting, not to mention a millionaire and a total gym junkie.

Woods set that particular ball rolling, transforming himself from a wiry but powerful hitter into a 6’ 2’ linebacker-sized athlete. Now McIlroy has followed suit, piling the muscle onto his smaller 5’9” frame in a move that his coach Michael Bannon described as being like “putting new tyres on a car.”

McIlroy outscored Woods by three shots in the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship taking just 25 putts to Tiger’s 35 as they went round in 67 and 70 respectively.

McIlroy’s round was good enough for a share of the lead but when asked about his chats with 36-year old Woods the 22-year old revealed that there’s still some hero worship there.

While he’s a huge hiter in his own right, McIlroy is still lagging behind Woods in the power stakes and he admitted as much yesterday when he confessed that he occasionally got drawn into a long-hitting contest.

“I’m going to answer it honestly,” he replied when asked about his long-driving temptations. “It did cross my mind a couple of times.  So that’s not the answer you were expecting.”

He took the 16th as an example.

“He took it way left on 16.  And I was like, I’m not sure if I can take it down that line.  I tried to and blocked it way right, ended up hitting the fairway, but yeah, I mean, when you see a guy out in front of you hitting it out there, you want to try and keep up with him.”

McIlroy’s beefed up frame raised a few eyebrows amongst those who have not seen him for a few months but he explained that he has piled on the muscle, not just to gain more power, but to increase the stability in his lower body and achieve more consistency.

Rory McIlroy on the eve of his professional debut at The Belfry in 2007.“I’ve been working hard in the gym, which has been good,” he said of his religious pursuit of the fitness programme set out by Steve McGregor.  “I really started working hard last year and I really got into it and really started to enjoy it.  Yeah, I feel like I’ve got a lot stronger and it’s definitely helped my golf, as well.  But yeah, basically every day since the start of the year I’ve been in there.

“I think it’s more to do with stability in my golf swing.  I feel like my lower body has gotten a lot more stable and a lot more stronger. I was doing a little bit of 3D testing last week.  I don’t want to bore you with all the details.  But I used to thrust quite a lot with my hips into the ball; so my hips would go sort of forwards.  And so instead of keeping your spine angle the same, and that’s a lot to do with your hips and your legs and your glutes.  That’s got a lot stronger.

“We saw in the 3D analysis that that’s got a lot better this year.  That means that you can put the club in a better position on the way down and you can do it more often, so you can become a lot more consistent.”

Detailing the areas he’s pinpointed, he said: “It was more a weak left side.  More a weak left leg, rather than anything else.  I could create a lot of power and a lot of speed on the way down but I couldn’t hold it through impact because my left side basically wasn’t strong enough.  It’s something I’ve worked on a lot, a lot of single‑leg stuff and it’s come a long way since the start of last year.”

It was a good day for most of the Irish with Gareth Maybin firing a 68 in his first start since he finished 117th of the 118 who kept their cards last year.

The Ulsterman, who is now using TaylorMade clubs after 10 years with PING, was happy with his start and confident that he won’t struggle to the same degree this year.

“It wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I had not done it,” he said of his last gasp battle to keep his card in Hong Kong. ” I would have got starts and I think if you’re a good enough player, you’ll retain your card, like Marc Warren last year.  The good thing about it is to be able to kind of make a schedule, which is the positive.”

Michael Hoey shot a rollercoaster 70 and Padraig Harrington a 71 in his first round using the new routines recommended by Luke Donald’s performance coach Dave Alred.

As for Graeme McDowell, the former US Open champion shot a level par 72 as he double bogeyed the 17th when his Callaway driver disintegrated.

According to the Irish Independent:

The 2010 US Open champion heard a slight rattle in the driver head after hitting his first shot of the day and was convinced “something’s not quite right here” when he bounced a ball on its face after hitting his tee shot at 16.

“As I walked to 17, I thought to myself: ‘If this driver’s got just one more swing in it, please let it be this one, because it’s one of the two toughest drives on the course and I can’t hit a three-wood here’.”

McDowell’s prayer wasn’t heard. The back of the 18-month-old Callaway’s head almost blew off as he struck his drive ‘on the meat’ at 17, his ball falling into the lake less than 220 yards into its flight, 15 yards short of dry land.

“I then had to hit a three-wood up the last, which landed me in trouble in the rough. The back of the head’s hanging off,” said McDowell. “I’ve never had the head come off before.”

He will press into service a new Cleveland Classic he has been testing, but he feels a wrench in writing off the driver he used for his vital tee shot at Celtic Manor’s 16th hole on the Monday at the 2010 Ryder Cup and again in victory at that year’s Valderrama Masters and Chevron World Challenge.

A 72 left McDowell tied 35th with Darren Clarke.

Shane Lowry and Damien McGrane shot 73’s but Peter Lawrie had 33 putts with the belly putter as he crashed to a six over 78.