While it may be unfair to Danny Willett to describe his duel with Rory McIlroy in tortoise and hare terms, there is fascination attached to the Englishman’s bid to keep pace with a four-times major winner in Dubai.
The Earth Course is akin to McIlroy’s playground. He has never recorded an over-par round here and this is where he was confirmed as the European Tour’s order of merit winner in 2012 and 2014. For that Race to Dubai crown to come his way again, the narrow leader must hold off Willett’s challenge.
That will not be easily achieved. After 18 holes at the DP World Tour Championship – a tournament in which McIlroy has finished outside the top five only once – both players are four under par. They made identical back-to-back nines of 34. When the Northern Irishman holed out from a greenside bunker at the last, providing the stunning moment of day one, Willett promptly holed his own birdie putt.
“I got enough practice out of the bunkers on the back nine,” McIlroy said with a smile. “It was a nice way to finish. It was a bit scrappy before that. I bogeyed the 10th and then got it back with a couple of good birdies. In between those birdies and the last, there was a bit of ugly golf.
“But it’s nice to get around in 68. I felt like it was a little struggle at times but to produce something like that and obviously the way I finished makes it feel a lot better.” McIlroy rightly pointed towards an upturn in putting fortunes. Problems on the greens have undermined his quests for glory in the latter half of 2015.
Completely different golfers, who have followed completely different career paths since the point of their Walker Cup partnership in 2007, thereby remain evenly matched in specific context of this European Tour finale.
Willett lacks McIlroy’s X factor but nothing whatsoever in attitude. To his credit, the Englishman has the steely approach not to be overawed by a player who can batter and has battered this course into submission in the past.
“That was very good,” said Willett, who did not record a single dropped shot. “This feels like quite a short week, flying in from China, trying to get your body back on the right time. I had a good couple of days practice but still would like one more. I went out there and played some pretty decent golf.”
The only disappointment is that McIlroy and Willett will not be afforded each other’s playing company on Friday. “I’m fortunate that I’ve been in this position a few times before,” McIlroy added. “I think the first time I came in here was going against Lee Westwood in 2009, I treated it a bit like matchplay, which probably wasn’t a good idea, and he played fantastically and won the tournament.
“I’ve been in this position; I think this is the fourth time in this tournament that I was in the last group going off the first day. I’ve got a little bit more experience and hopefully that gives me a little bit of an advantage.”
McIlroy had an image of the Eiffel Tower drawn on to his cap as a mark respect to the victims of the Paris terrorist attacks. “It’s my first time in the public eye since it happened and I just wanted to pay tribute and show a little bit of solidarity with France,” he said.
With 54 holes to play, six under leads. Martin Kaymer, Andy Sullivan, Ian Poulter and Marcus Fraser all signed for 66. Perhaps Poulter’s prominence is due in part to a change in approach; a player previously obsessed with his world ranking has opted to ignore a current position of 53rd.
“I’m not worried any more,” Poulter said. “I’m in the Masters anyway. So I’m just not worried about it. I’m playing well, I’m just not converting all of the chances that I would expect to convert. So when I do that, I’m going to find myself with a trophy in my hand and that [the ranking] takes care of itself.”
The South African Branden Grace, who has Race to Dubai aspirations of his own, matched the score of McIlroy and Willett. Justin Rose, another contender, finished bogey-bogey for 71.
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