Rory McIlroy again insisted he had no worries at all about his imminent equipment change after overcoming a sluggish start to open with a bogey free 66 and trail leader Luke Donald by just one stroke in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
Six time major winner Nick Faldo again expressed concerns this week about McIlroy’s decision to ditch Titleist and sign a reputed $250m deal with Nike for next season, insisting that it could undermine his confidence if it goes awry.
“The bottom line is he’s doing it for money,” Faldo told Jamie Corrigan in the Daily Telegraph. “When he looks at a 20-year career it’s not necessary. If he carries on and wins more majors he’ll be worth hundreds of millions anyway. Sure this is a wonderful guarantee but Rory knows the biggest thing is winning golf tournaments. If he believes that’s still going to happen, fine. But if it holds him back for a split second in his mind then you will question it.”
Playing his last tournament using Titleist clubs, world No 1 McIlroy was not quite at his brilliant best early on but still managed to pick up six birdies and keep a bogey off his card thanks to some trademark short game brilliance.
And he sees no reason why that won’t continue next year when he will also be using a new golf ball.
“I’ve done a little bit [of testing],” McIlroy told SkySports television. “After the Ryder Cup I started to test a little bit and I’ve got six or seven weeks to really get into it. I am pretty much set with everything and it’s just a matter of getting a little more comfortable with it and playing a few rounds and it should be okay.
“I am very confident. I feel that with the changes I have made in equipment [in the past] even though it was with the same manufacturer, I feel like I have got into clubs maybe a little easier than other players. I have basically got a set of irons, got the woods sorted and I guess it is just a matter of getting the ball dialled in and I will be good.”
Tied for second place Spain’s with Gonzalo Fernandez Castaño and Scot Marc Warren on six under par after getting up and down for a par-five at the 18th following a drive into water, McIlroy is just a shot behind leader Donald, who shot an immaculate 65.
“I didn’t really give myself many chances and had a decent chance on seven to get to two under and didn’t take it,” McIlroy said. “Then I made a couple of really crucial up and downs which kept the round going and just holed a few putts on the back nine and held it together.”
After consistently outdriving playing partner Peter Hanson, McIlroy admitted that his length was a big advantage on a course that measures 7,685 yards from the back tees.
“It’s huge,” he said. “There are a few bunkers here at 300 off the tee and I am able to clear them so I feel like it gives me a big advantage on this golf course.
“I think I drove the ball beautifully today with the exception of 18 and if I continue to drive the ball like that for the next three days I’ll have a chance.”
Pádraig Harrington is the next best of the Irish on five under 67 he confessed could have been a lot lower had he been better on the greens.
“I shot 67 doing handstands today,” Harrington said. “Sometimes you do that when your expectations are low.”
Coming into the event on the back of two missed cuts in a row and a dose of ‘flu that kept him bed-bound during his down time in Hong Kong last week and earlier this week in Dubai, world No 66 Harrington knows a first European Tour win in over four years would catapult him back into the world’s top 50. But he’s not getting ahead of himself.
“Today I wasn’t very confident going into the tournament so anything was going to keep me happy out there and I’m pleased with the score,” Harrington said after taking 29 putts and missing just three greens a six-birdie round on a course softened by heavy, early morning rain.
Tied for fifth place with Louis Oosthuizen, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Richie Ramsay and Fredrik Andersson Hed, Harrington added: “It could have been numerous shots better I missed an awful lot of chances. You don’t play like that every day and I’m not expecting to play like that for the rest of the week.
“I had the ‘flu all week in Hong Kong. I played two rounds of golf but the rest of it I spent holed up in bed trying to recover.
“I suffered a bit of a relapse this Tuesday. I still have a bit of a cough so I won’t be doing too much practice this week, just taking it easy.”
Harrington certainly did not find it easy in practice in Dubai on Tuesday.
“I didn’t play very well then,” he said. “I found the golf course very difficult and had to hit woods going in to a lot of the par-four holes.
“Maybe I was a bit tired but I found it a real tough course on Tuesday. Going into today I would have taken anything that was under par.”
Peter Lawrie was delighted to open with a four under 68 after going out with Warren early in the day.
“I played lovely today,” Lawrie said. “I haven’t hit my irons in as close for a long time. Drove the ball nicely and holed one or two putts but nothing major and very happy to be starting with four under.
“It’s a very good score. I am very happy with it, especially being out very early in the morning. Normally it’s a bit tougher but today it was warm so the ball was flying. I am very happy.”
Torrential rain lased Dubai as Lawrie made his way to the course for his 8.20 am tee time.
“I’ve never seen the likes of it,” he saud. “You could hardly see and I thought there’s no way we are going to start on time. But lo and behold we did. Typical desert weather.
“The course is playing a little bit softer and the fairways aren’t running out at all, so it is playing quite long, which is not really up my alley.
“But the greens are softer so you could hit your iron shots at the flag and if you hit them the right distance, some are going to go close.”
Lawrie was under pressure in Hong Kong last week, where he began the tournament defending that crucial 60th place in the Race to Dubai standings with only the top 60 qualifying for Dubai.
But he came home tied for fourth behind Miguel Angel Jiménez to maintain his 100 percent record of making the season-ending event and arrived in the UAE with a spring in his step.
“I played lovely last week and came here with a bit of confidence,” Lawrie said. “If I can get the driver going this week and hit some fairways and get it out there a little bit, you never know.”
Michael Hoey had four birdies and a double bogey six at the 10th in a two under 70 to share 28th place whole the recently engaged Graeme McDowell had 33 putts in a level par 72 that left him tied for 42nd in the 56-man field.
After an opening bogey, McDowell birdied the second, fourth and eighth to turn in two under but dropped shots at the 15th and 18th.
Shane Lowry was forced to withdraw before the start after spending the night on a drip in hospital suffering from dehydration due to a virus, kissing goodbye his chances of securing an early Masters invitation by breaking into the world’s top 50 this week.
“Obviously I’m gutted,” said Lowry. “It’s such a big week and a great event, but given the way I feel right now there’s just no way I could have played.
“I honestly couldn’t even stand up on the tee, never mind play 18 holes.
“I became very sick and dehydrated. The drip helped, but when I came off it and left the hospital I became sick again and haven’t been able to keep rehydrating to keep the recovery going overnight.
“It’s just so disappointing to miss out on the tournament because I’ve been playing great for the last couple of months.”
The world No 57, who was just €3,460 short of breaking the €1m mark for tournament earnings this season, could have earned €19,371 for turning up to hit his opening tee shot.
He won the Portugal Masters and then came fifth at the BMW Masters in China.
“I was looking to end the season on a real high, but such is life.”