Rory McIlroy leads by one at halfway and insists he doesn’t just hope to win the Omega Dubai Desert Classic from here - he expects to win.
“Yeah, I do,” he said when asked if he had as much confidence in his eventual triumph as just about everyone else in Dubai bar his chief rivals. “I'm leading the golf tournament. I've been in this position before and I've gone on to win.
“I've led from the front quite well in tournaments that I have won. And I feel like I'm still playing well. I know the course just as well as anyone else.
"So, yeah, I’m expecting to go out there and shoot two good scores over the weekend and hopefully lift the trophy.”
He also said: "Hopefully that's my bad round out of the way."
McIlroy appears hell-bent on consigning 2013 to oblivion and while he had a back nine wobble that momentarily left him seething, his up and down for birdie at the 18th mollified his mood and gave him a two under 70 and the slimmest of leads over European Tour based American Books Koepka (69-65) on 11 under par.
That McIlroy is highly competitive is good to see but it was just as refreshing to hear Tiger Woods, eight shots off the pace after a ragged 73, crack a few jokes at his own expense.
“I was on so many parts of the golf course today that I got to meet so many people, signed so many autographs out there and gave a lot of balls away," Woods joked at a junior golf clinic on the practice range after his round. "But seriously, I was just hitting it sideways.”
Less than a week ago, the world No 1 shot a third round 79 in the Farmer’s Insurance Open and refused to speak to reporters. Perhaps it’s the desert air or possibly the seven-figure appearance fee, but he didn’t sound overly worried that he hit just four of 14 fairways or racked up 31 putts.
As ESPN’s Bob Harig pointed out: “If there is a bright spot, it's Woods' short game. He has hit just 11 of 28 fairways and only 22 of 36 greens through two rounds but has gotten it up and down for par 13 out of 14 times. His other two bogeys were three-putts.”
After making the cut with only one stroke to spare, Woods will partner former West of Ireland champion Mikko Illonen of Finland in the third round from 8.50 am while McIlroy will go off in the final group with Koepka nearly four hours later.
It’s not quite the scenario that Omega were looking for, which explains why McIlroy and a clearly under-golfed Woods were thrown together for the first two days.
Irish fans will be pleased to see Damien McGrane just three strokes off the lead on eight under par after a grinding 70. But they will have been equally pleased to see how McIlroy has developed a trait that made Woods infamous - he can shoot under par without playing his A or even his B game.
He missed the fairway at the first three holes but while he bogeyed the first, overshooting the green from the left rough, he parred the second and birdied the par-five third from the front trap.
Woods also birdied the third from greenside sand but he was never in position to attack the course and while he followed bogeys at the sixth (three-putt) and ninth (fairway metal into left rough, metal over the back and three from there) with a two at the 11th, he three-putted from 50 feet for bogey at the 14th and parred in.
“I've been hitting hot pulls and every one of those things has some serious heat to it which is nice but I just need to get it online,” Woods said of his waywardness off the tee.
“I would rather hit the hot pull than the big flame out, crop duster to the right.”
Denying he was frustrated and hopeful he can still find a way of firing a couple of low rounds, Woods said: “It’s just part of the process. I took a long break there and didn't really do anything much. Just trying to get my body organised and that part has materialised and that's nice.
“Now just need to get the game to come around and hopefully tomorrow, I need a lot of wind on the weekend and play two great rounds.”
Woods is not the only one hoping for some wind at the weekend. McIlroy reckons a good breeze will play into his hands.
“I don't mind if it gets up the next couple days because I feel like I'm hitting the ball well enough that the wind usually makes it a bit more of a ball striking contest,” he said. “So I don't mind if it blows a little bit.
For a while it looked as though McIlroy would go on one of his birdie streaks and leave the field miles behind. After birdies at the fifth and seventh he was three clear on 11 under.
When he birdied the 10th, it was looking ominous for the rest with two par fives and a couple of wedge holes to come.
But he had a power lip out to bogey the par-five 13th, missed a chance at the 15th, drove into the desert and bogeyed the 16th and then failed to birdie the driveable, par-four 17th. When he couldn’t go for the green in two at the 18th, it appeared he would end the day tied for the lead with Koepka on 10 under.
But he played safe, hit his third to six feet and rolled in the putt to remain out in front.
“It was nice to birdie the last and at least give myself a one shot lead going into tomorrow,” he said, trying manfully to look on the bright side. “But yeah, just go back tonight and sort of regroup and realise that I'm still leading the tournament.
“I regrouped after that [lip out on 13]. I hit a couple of loose drives out there which I haven't really done the past couple weeks, but still feel like I'm playing well enough to obviously go on.”
Pressed on his lapses, McIlroy added: “I was just sort of more frustrated because the back nine is the nine that you sort of want to build your score on and playing the harder nine in two-under par, I thought I did well there.
“I was a little frustrated not to, you know, I guess get a few more birdies on that back nine. But as I said, a good, positive way to finish the round with a nice birdie on 18.”
McIlroy and McGrane were joined for the weekend by Michael Hoey, who shot a level par 72 to make the two-under par cut on the mark.
But it was another frustrating week for Shane Lowry, who completed an unwanted hat-trick of missed cuts in the Desert Swing events.
The Clara man, currently ranked 89th in the world, missed out by a stroke by the second week running after struggling off the tee and on the greens en route to a 73.
Starting on the easier back nine, he was just one under through nine holes and three under for the tournament, leaving him a shot inside the projected cut mark.
But he hit just three of 14 fairways and racked up 33 putts as he came home in two over 37 with a solitary birdie at the 351-yard second against bogeys at the first, fourth and eighth.
Simon Thornton birdied three of his last six holes for a 71 but the damage was done by an opening 75 and at two over, he also missed out on the same mark as Gareth Maybin, who double bogeyed the eighth (his 17th) en route to a 71.
Dubliner Peter Lawrie, who followed a 76 with a 73 to miss the cut on five over and missed his sixth cut in a row since he salvaged his tour card in Perth late last year.
The 2008 Spanish Open winner was out for the count from the start when he opened with a double bogey six at the first.
Lawrie has now missed 20 cuts out of 26 since he finished 17th in Dubai 12 months ago.
He bravely avoided a trip to Q-School with an 18th place finish in the Perth International last October, but has now missed the first six cuts of the 2014 European Tour season - three before Christmas and the first three this year since he reluctantly split with his coach of 12 years, Brendan McDaid, at the end of the year.
Omega Dubai Desert Classic
133 R McIlroy (Nir) 63 70;
134 B Koepka (USA) 69 65;
136 J Quesne (Fra) 66 70; D Willett (Eng) 71 65; D McGrane (Irl) 66 70;
137 T Jaidee (Tha) 68 69; S Gallacher (Sco) 66 71; J Donaldson (Wal) 69 68; J Walters (RSA) 69 68; H Stenson (Swe) 70 67; R Rock (Eng) 67 70; E Molinari (Ita) 65 72;
138 F Molinari (Ita) 69 69; R Kakko (Fin) 69 69; E Grillo (Arg) 71 67; S Dyson (Eng) 69 69; M Carlsson (Swe) 69 69; M Madsen (Den) 71 67; S Hansen (Den) 67 71;
139 G Bourdy (Fra) 71 68; R Sterne (RSA) 66 73; J Van Zyl (RSA) 71 68; T Olesen (Den) 71 68; J Luiten (Ned) 70 69; B Rumford (Aus) 69 70; C Doak (Sco) 71 68; S Kim (Kor) 70 69; S Kjeldsen (Den) 68 71; P Lawrie (Sco) 68 71; M Siem (Ger) 72 67;
140 M Baldwin (Eng) 66 74; R Karlsson (Swe) 73 67; T Lewis (Eng) 71 69; R Jacquelin (Fra) 69 71; P Waring (Eng) 70 70; B Wiesberger (Aut) 70 70; J Campillo (Esp) 68 72; K Broberg (Swe) 71 69; M Crespi (Ita) 69 71; E De La Riva (Esp) 70 70; A Wall (Eng) 74 66; R Cabrera-Bello (Esp) 71 69; C Montgomerie (Sco) 70 70;
141 D Fichardt (RSA) 69 72; A Quiros (Esp) 69 72; F Couples (USA) 70 71; M Ilonen (Fin) 69 72; L Slattery (Eng) 70 71; R Wattel (Fra) 68 73; A Cañizares (Esp) 74 67; A Levy (Fra) 69 72; T Woods (USA) 68 73; M Kieffer (Ger) 71 70; S Webster (Eng) 71 70; S Hend (Aus) 69 72; H Otto (RSA) 68 73; S Noh (Kor) 69 72;
142 J Lima (Por) 71 71; C Del Moral (Esp) 70 72; S Benson (Eng) 72 70; S Kapur (Ind) 72 70; G Havret (Fra) 70 72; D Van Der Walt (RSA) 72 70; F Zanotti (Par) 72 70; P Larrazábal (Esp) 74 68; S Jamieson (Sco) 73 69; G Stal (Fra) 74 68; T Björn (Den) 72 70; P Casey (Eng) 70 72; M Hoey (Nir) 70 72; C Wood (Eng) 73 69;
143 R Green (Aus) 74 69; R Fisher (Eng) 71 72; P Whiteford (Sco) 76 67; P Uihlein (USA) 75 68; E Pepperell (Eng) 71 72; D Drysdale (Sco) 70 73; S Lowry (Irl) 70 73; G Mulroy (RSA) 73 70;
144 J Carlsson (Swe) 73 71; E Els (RSA) 74 70; T Hatton (Eng) 73 71; N Fasth (Swe) 73 71; D Horsey (Eng) 69 75; M Foster (Eng) 72 72; M O'Meara (USA) 70 74; J Daly (USA) 70 74; B Grace (RSA) 72 72; N Elvira (Esp) 74 70; G Maybin (Nir) 71 73; A Sullivan (Eng) 74 70; J Singh (Ind) 75 69; P Hanson (Swe) 72 72; M Jiménez (Esp) 75 69;
145 R Gonzalez (Arg) 72 73; C Lee (Sco) 73 72; D Howell (Eng) 73 72; F Calmels (Fra) 75 70; T Fleetwood (Eng) 69 76; M Nixon (Eng) 74 71; J Kruger (RSA) 73 72; J Olazábal (Esp) 74 71; J Ballesteros (am) (Esp) 74 71;
146 J Jeong (Kor) 77 69; S Thornton (Irl) 75 71; R Santos (Por) 72 74;
147 J McLeary (Sco) 72 75; S Dodd (Wal) 75 72; J Hansen (Den) 74 73; D Huizing (Ned) 73 74;
148 M Manassero (Ita) 76 72; R Dinwiddie (Eng) 74 74; A Otaegui (Esp) 72 76; R Derksen (Ned) 74 74;
149 R Bland (Eng) 76 73; L Corfield (Eng) 75 74; P Lawrie (Irl) 76 73; A Pavan (Ita) 77 72; J Coceres (Arg) 76 73; B Lane (Eng) 79 70; M Warren (Sco) 72 77;
150 G Storm (Eng) 74 76;
151 G Bhullar (Ind) 77 74;
152 V Riu (Fra) 75 77; M El Maouas (am) (Mar) 73 79;
153 W Westner (RSA) 77 76;
154 T Levet (Fra) 74 80; F Serghini (Mar) 78 76;
155 J Parry (Eng) 75 80;
** D McKenzie (Sco) 77 DQ; M Fraser (Aus) 77 WD; Z Scotland (Eng) 71 DQ.