The Dane said it best: “There’s 27 holes before it gets really tough and the tournament gets decided. So just gotta go out and continue playing well. There’s nobody on that leaderboard that’s going to back down.”
Rory McIlroy is certainly in no mood to become shy and retiring after he carded a majestic and seemingly effortless, seven under par 65 to share the halfway lead with Thomas Bjorn at 13 under par in the Dubai Desert Classic.
Putting with supreme confidence and driving the ball well after struggling with the big stick in Abu Dhabi, the 2009 champion appears to have taken his game to a new level.
Winning his fourth Eurpean Tour title on Sunday will not be easy with Bjorn, 41 next week, heading a cast of dogged rivals after matching McIlroy’s opening salvo with a 66-65 start of his own.
First round leader Rafael Cabrera Bello of Spain added a 69 to his opening 63 to lie just a stroke behind McIlroy and Bjorn on 12 under with world No 4 Martin Kaymer lurking ominously in a three-man group a further shot back after notching the first hole in one of his career in a 67.
Then there’s Lee Westwood, the world No 2. Like McIlroy, the Englishman has made just one bogey over the first 36 holes and his second round 65 could have been several shots better had he had a little more luck with the putter.
McIlroy, however, is in sublime form and he credited an improved short game with his rise to the top of the pile on what was a good day for the Irish and particularly Damien McGrane, who improved on his first round effort by 10 shots when he also shot a 65.
“I just got off to a much better start today and made a couple of birdies early on,” McIlroy said. “And it was nice just to sort of pick up birdies along the way instead of yesterday having to sort light it up on the back nine to shoot a score.
“This was very stress free golf, fairways most of the time, a lot of greens and giving myself a lot of looks. So overall I’m really pleased with how I played today and obviously looking forward to the weekend.”
“I was very pleased with how I drove the ball today. It’s really that’s been a huge positive coming into this week. I didn’t feel like I drove the ball well at all in Abu Dhabi, and I feel like I’ve put that right for the most part and felt really confident off the tee today.”
Asked where he felt he had made the greatest strides in his game over the past six months, McIlroy point to the short game.
“I’m not sure. I feel like the second half of last year I felt like my scrambling got a lot better. I was getting it up and down a lot. I mean my consistency, I feel like every time I go out now I have a chance to win, and that’s obviously what you want to do week in, week out.
“And I think the thing that pleased me about Abu Dhabi was that even when I didn’t feel like I’m playing my best I still managed to get myself into contention. And that’s a very pleasing thing about probably something I’ve learned how to do the last sort of 18 months.
“But overall everything’s just I’m trying to just put it all together. There was weeks where I could, but I couldn’t do it on a consistent basis, and now I feel like I’m able to do that a bit more.”
McIlroy admits that he’s been inspired to work harder by girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, the tennis start who has recently slipped from first to fourth in the world.
And he knows he’s going to have to work hard to win this week with Kaymer chief amongst his rivals.
The German has come out on top in their recent duels, winning back to back titles in Abu Dhabi as well as the 2010 US PGA at Whistling Straits.
“He’s really good,” McIlroy said. “He’s very solid, and he’s another guy that no matter how he plays, it seems like he can when he gets a sniff to win, he usually gets the job done, so it should be a good weekend.”
Like Bjorn, McIlroy and Kaymer, Westwood also knows what it’s like to win in the desert and if conditions remain conducive to scoring, he’s hoping he can keep his foot down and hole some putts without making too many mistakes.
“It’s been a bit strange the first two days here. It’s like being on one of those little Scalextics as a kid where you pull the trigger and come out as fast as you can and hopefully hang on at the corners.
“The scoring’s been incredible, and it’s partly to do with the condition of the course. It’s immaculate. The greens are immaculate. There’s no breeze, and they’ve been holding. That’s why the scoring is so good. So I think with a little wind over the weekend and a little bit of luck, the course might start to show its teeth a little more.”
The supporting caset includes Frenchman Gregory Bourdy (67) and Scott Jamieson (68) of Scotland, who are tied for fourth with Kaymer on 11 under with Germany’s Marcel Siem joint seventh with Westwood on 10 under.
Shane Lowry is the next best Irish player on joint 18th on six under after a 70 that saw him hit 12 of 14 fairways .
But the road of the day from an Irish perspective was arguably McGrane’s impressive 65 that saw him move up 89 places to tied 27th on four under.
Struggling to get any momentum going this season, the Meath man looked out for the count after that opening 75. But he had other ideas as his putter warmed up in the desert heat.
After opening with a birdie at the 10th, he birdied the 13th and 14th and then rattled off anther three birdies in a row from the 16th to turn in six under par 31 before picking up another shot at the par-five third on the way home.
Struggling on the geeens, Peter Lawrie signed for a two over 75 to slip back from 11th to 39th on three under alongside Gareth Maybin, who had four birdies and a double bogey six in a 70.
The biggest disappointment came from Michael Hoey, who needed a top two finish to qualify for the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson.
After opening with a 73 the world No 90 turned in level par but then double bogeyed the first, his 10th, and eventually carded a 72 to miss the one-under par cut by two strokes.