Advantage McIlroy in Dubai

Rory McIlroy surged into contention with a superb back nine performance at the Dubai World Championship on Thursday.

Rory McIlroy surged into contention with a superb back nine performance at the Dubai World Championship on Thursday.

While Swede Peter Hanson grabbed the first-round lead at Jumeirah Golf Estates with a superb eight-under-par 64, it’s the showdown between McIlroy and World No 1 Luke Donald for the European Tour money list title that is drawing the most attention this week, and the youngster from Northern Ireland certainly won that battle on the day, outscoring his rival by a full six shots as he carded a six-under-par 66 that left him all alone in third place heading into the second round.

Midway through the day’s play it appeared as if an entirely different story was unfolding, however, as it was Donald who got off to the better start and McIlroy who was struggling to put a score together.

McIlroy was at one stage languishing three shots behind the Englishman after losing a ball on only his fifth shot of the day and running up a double bogey seven in the process.

But while Donald’s game fell apart on the back nine, finding the bushes at 14 and 15 and failing to get up and down from a bunker at 16, McIlroy found his touch in spectacular fashion, rolling in six birdies even as Donald made three successive bogeys for a dramatic turnaround that has left the Race to Dubai still very much alive.

The job for McIlroy is simple this week – he needs to win, while he also needs Donald to finish outside the top nine. After their respective performances today, either eventuality still seems a distinct possibility.

McIlroy is suffering from a virus and is currently awaiting blood test results, but his condition may have helped ease the pressure ahead of this all-important tournament.

“It’s sort of taken the pressure off. I’m not 100 per cent and there’s nothing I can do about it.

“I made three silly mistakes on the front nine but stayed patient and the back nine was pretty much flawless.

“I definitely don’t feel invincible, but I feel every time I tee it up I have a good chance of shooting a good score.”

Coming off a win in Hong Kong, McIlroy added: “It was the perfect start for me and really sets me up for the next three days. I didn’t expect Luke to play the way he did.”

Donald, who eventually signed for level-par 72, now finds himself six strokes behind McIlroy and a full eight shots off the lead.

“I hit a few loose shots,” he said. “They came out of the blue a little bit, although there were a couple of times last week (in South Africa) when I had that left shot and I’ve got to keep working on it.

“I felt very much in control and then I lost it, but this course can do that to you. There are a lot of hazards in the middle of fairways, so you aim for one side and if you miss it you can be in the bushes.”

Hanson, meanwhile, equalled the course record set by Lee Westwood two years ago, and leads second-placed Paul Lawrie of Scotland by a single shot.

The 34-year-old is winless in the last 14 months, but finished third behind McIlroy last week in Hong Kong and was very pleased with his performance today.

“I think it’s the best golf I’ve played,” said Hanson.

“It’s quite a demanding course and the wind picked up a little bit over the back nine.

“I’m very, very happy with the way I struck the ball – and I rolled a few putts in.”

Spaniard Sergio Garcia, who is chasing his third straight win on the European Tour after consecutive victories on his home soil back in October, lies in fourth place, three shots off the lead.

Coming back from a month-long break after those wins, Garcia looked none the worse for the wear and his five-under 67 means he’ll definitely be a factor in the days to come.

Three players share fifth place on four under – another Spaniard, Alvaro Quiros, and Englishmen Robert Rock and Ross Fisher – while as many as six more are a further shot back after three-under 69s – South Africans Charl Schwartzel, Thomas Aiken and Jaco Van Zyl, England’s David Lynn and David Horsey, and Irishman Shane Lowry.

Last week’s winner in Sun City, Lee Westwood, could do no better than a one-over 73 and finds himself nine shots adrift, alongside other big names like Martin Kaymer, Thomas Bjorn, Ian Poulter and Matteo Manasserro.