Gareth Maybin is a stroke off the lead in the $2.5m Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship - just seven weeks after struggling to keep his card in his last tournament appearance.
But his bogey-free 36 holes was still overshadowed by a two-stroke penalty for Rory McIlroy and positive performances for Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and former world No 1 Tiger Woods.
As the big names gathered near the top of the leaderboard, Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen carded a five under 67 to lead on seven under par from Maybin (68-70) and Matteo Manassero (73-65) with McIlroy (67-72) just two shots off the pace in a seven-way tie for fourth with Woods (70-69) despite incurring a careless, two-stroke penalty on the ninth hole.
The US Open champion was penalised for brushing sand away from his line as he prepared to putt from around two yards off the green before bouncing back to come home in two under par and keep his title hopes very much alive.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly and just made a very stupid mental mistake,” the world No 3 said after an eventful round featuring six birdies, two bogeys and two double bogey sixes.
Asked if he did not know the rule or just had a loss of concentration, he added: “I think it was a little bit of both - first week back as well. Luke said ‘Don’t think you can do that’ and I was like ‘Oh yeah, I can’t, can I?’
“It happens and you just have to take it on the chin. There was so much sand in my line I didn’t even think about it. I’ll definitely not do it again.
“It’s a bit of a weird rule. You can move a loose impediment like a divot out of your line. You can’t move sand.
“Not a weird rule, but a tricky rule. That’s the same penalty as hitting the ball out of bounds. It’s tough, but the rules are the rules and we’ve got to play by them.
“I’m sure Luke was put in an awkward position there, but he had to say it. If I was in his position I would have said the same thing.
“It’s fine. I have a hundred more tournaments to play, so it’s not life-and-death out there.”
While Donald remained deep in the pack on one under with a 72, Woods is right in the thick of things heading into the weekend.
He is going for a second successive victory after more than two barren years and for a while it looked as if he might even catch World Number 171 Olesen when he birdied the 11th, 12th and 15th, but bogeyed the next after driving into rough.
He was happy enough after his 69, though, and certainly putted better than he had in his opening 70, using the blade just 28 times.
“I thought I played well today,” Woods said. “I feel like I’m swinging well and a lot of things that Sean (coach Sean Foley) and I have been working on are starting to feel very comfortable.
“I’ve grown to understand what he wants me to do and how my body is going to do those things and produce the numbers he wants me to produce.” The pair have been together almost 18 months now.
Harrington three-putted three times as he carded a 69 but all three were from long range and the Dubliner was characteristically upbeat about his round and his game going forward.
Tied for 11th on four under and set to tee it up in the same threeball as his old rival Sergio Garcia in the third round, the 40-year old world No 88 said: “I rolled the ball really nicely today. Nearly every putt I took, I gave the hole a run. Certainly scared it a few times. So, yeah, I was happy with that.”
Asked by a TV interviewer about the state of his game, Harrington grinned and said: “I’ve been telling you it’s coming for a good while. So I’m always optimistic but I’m seeing some great signs out there. I’m getting a quality strike on a lot of shots and as I said, I seem to be rolling the ball nicely so just kind of have to get used to it now and run with it.”
The Dubliner hooked up with motivational coach Dave Alred for the first time this week, six weeks after first seeking his help, and believes it will make a difference to his game going forward.
” He’s a busy man. I actually at the Irish Open last year when I said I was going to make a change, I drove 2 1/2 hours to see him. The first time I could get an appointment with him was this date, this week. So it’s taken six months.
“It’s been worth the wait. It’s been real interesting. He’s been certainly generous with his‑‑ he’s very giving. He’s worked with everybody on my team, because obviously I bring a few people with me. Yeah, I really found it very useful. Everybody’s trying to figure out what he does; what is he.
“Certainly the reason I have employed him is he’s a practise coach for me. You know, he’s making me more diligent in my practise. As I said all through last year, I felt I played well in practise and just never took it to the golf course.
“He’s all about, you know, taking your practise to the golf course. Really we time the practise, we count the balls. There’s a lot of things‑‑ it’s really putting a lot more precision into the practise.
“He’s very hands‑on. If I was trying to pigeon hole him into one specific job, you would say he’s a practise coach. You know, he’s monitoring what I do in practise, how I practise, and we are trying to get the biggest transfer from the practise round to the golf course. So that would be pigeon holing it into one thing.
“He obviously crosses the line to a number of other elements through his own experience. But I suppose at the top of his C.V., he watches that you do the right thing when you’re practicing and you don’t get loose.”
Alred, who rose to prominence as a rugby union kicking coach with the England squad, has helped world No 1 Luke Donald for several years and Harrington hopes he can help him too.
“As I’ve always said my whole life, I’ve always watched everybody else. I want to know what everybody else is doing. I want to know when guys are not playing well just as much as I want to know when guys are playing well.
“There’s no point in only having your own experience if you’ve got to learn from other people. You’d be retired and very experienced if you were just waiting on yourself.
“Yeah, I pay attention. I watch. Obviously I played with Luke at The Ryder Cup, so Dave was working with him there, so I would have seen him at that stage and followed‑‑ tried to get an idea what he’s doing. Yeah, as I said, it’s taken six months to get an appointment with him. So, you know, he’s a busy man and he’s good at what he does.”
As for his swing work with new coach Pete Cowen, Harrington sounded optimistic about his prospects this season, explaining: “You’re always optimistic that everything is going to fall into place. I would say, yeah, I’m comfortable with where I’m at and I do believe that I’ve seen some good signs.
“I’ve done some nice work with Pete Cowen and I’m getting a good understanding of what I’m trying to do there. I’m starting to work with Dave Alred and I’m getting a nice transfer for the work that’s going on on the range, and things are starting to… I’ll be happy if I keep playing like I played the last two days for the rest of the year. I’m going to have some good weeks.”
McDowell birdied his final two holes with a new Cleveland driver in the bag to match Harrington’s 69 and lie just four shots off the lead on three under.
“Good solid day,” McDowell said. “First nine holes I hit it beautifully again, and was a bit quiet on the greens again. But like yesterday, I thought, here we go again. I drove the ball fantastic. Obviously the new Cleveland driver in the bag today and the first nine holes, I didn’t miss a shot with it. I drove it beautifully.
“Back nine I was a little off. I missed a few fairways and when you start missing fairways on this golf course, it will beat you up. I made a couple of bogeys coming in, but strong; to birdie 8 and 9 to finish the day.
“Very happy with the way I’m hitting it and very positive start to the season really. I’ve exceeded my expectations with regards to how I’m swinging the club and how I’m hitting it and I’m a little ahead of where I thought I was. It’s nice. I just need to get hot on the greens this weekend.”
McIlroy got of to a poor start with a bogey at the first and a double bogey at the third. He birdied the fourth, fifth and eighth to get back to level for the day before his mishap at the ninth.
But he was pleased with the way he recovered on the back nine, cancelling out a bogey at the 11th with birdies at the 10th, 12th and 14th.
McIlroy said: “It was interesting round to say the least. I didn’t get off to the greatest of starts, and felt like I battled back really well to get myself to even par through eight holes. Just made a very stupid mental mistake on 9 that cost me two strokes, and then I felt like I played the back nine pretty well at 3‑under.
“So I mean, overall, with everything that happened, it wasn’t a bad score.”
Reflecting on his recovery from his two-stroke penalty - he came with a whisker of holing an 18 footer for eagle at the 10th - McIlroy said: “[My caddie] JP said something to me out there today. It’s only Friday. It’s not like these things are happening to you on a Sunday afternoon.
“So I’ve just got to stay patient. I knew I was going to plan well enough that I was going to hit some good shots coming in and give myself chances.”
As for Maybin, the Ballyclare man followed nine straight pars with birdies at the 10th and 12th before parring his way home.
He said: “I didn’t score as well today but played a little bit better which is encouraging. Still haven’t dropped a shot which is nice. How my game is going to have to be around here, make as few mistakes as possible and try to keep making birdies.
“I made a few good putts, a few good up‑and‑downs. Still tricky driving the ball, especially if you get a little bit of wind. Doesn’t take much, just a little bit, but my short game has been the key. Just keep trying to put it in the fairway, not be too aggressive and get my chances when they come.”
As for his turnaround in form after last year’s struggles to keep his card, he said: “Yeah, coming off a seven‑week layoff, quite surprising, I’m usually not the quickest to get out of the gates but this is a little different.
“I did a lot of gym work [over the winter], hung out with my friends, my wife, my family, stuff like that. Not a whole lot of golf in there.
“[It was good to] get freshened up and get my mind cleared after last year and feels pretty good.”
As for the rest of the Irish, Michael Hoey made the cut on the two over par mark after a 76 but Damien McGrane (73-76), Peter Lawrie (78-72), Shane Lowry (73-77) and Darren Clarke (72-81) all missed out.