Irish trio in touch as four tie for the lead in Dubai

Mark McGowan
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Rory McIlroy (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Mark McGowan

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Rory McIlroy’s hopes of a successful defence and record fourth Dubai Desert Classic title remain alive despite bogeying three holes in succession on his closing nine on day one at Emirates Golf Club.

The world number two is just four off the leading quartet of former champion Haotong Li, Rasmus Højgaard, Andy Sullivan and Cameron Young who each shot rounds of -5 on a day where the golf course gave little away easy.

Tom McKibbin at level-par and Padraig Harrington at +1 may have ended the day tied for 42nd and 61st respectively, but they are still well in touch with the course playing tough and likely to get tougher as the week progresses. Winning scores of -19, as McIlroy shot last year, or in the 20s as when Bryson DeChambeau and Li won in previous editions look to be well out of reach with the promise of firm greens remaining throughout the week.

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Li, who held off Rory McIlroy to win in 2018, endured a slew of missed cuts while finishing 208th and 238th on the Race to Dubai Rankings in Partnership with Rolex in 2021 and 2023, either side of a 2022 campaign that saw him claim a third DP World Tour win in Germany.

A top 20 last week hinted at another renaissance with a new swing and new equipment and he followed that with a five-under-par total over the Emirates Golf Club layout where he has obviously got fond memories.

Dane Højgaard is hoping to emulate brother Nicolai in winning in Dubai, though his twin’s victroy came on the Earth Course in last year’s DP World Tour Championship. Rasmus and England’s Sullivan each have four DP World Tour wins as they search for a first Rolex Series triumph, while World Number 25 Young is making his debut in this event and finished birdie, birdie, eagle to take his share of first-round-leader honours.

“Yeah, I was proud of the way I handled it,” said former PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Young, who is making his first appearance in the Middle East. “I think early on, I saw some people 4-, 5-under par through eight or ten holes. And kind of assumed that someone would shoot seven or eight, and kind of found out like halfway through my round that no one had shot better than five. I think put it in perspective that I was even or 1-over at the time, and felt like I was playing all right and knew I had those chances.

“I think it kind of helped me just wait for those to come, knowing that even or one over through the front nine isn’t bad and you have a chance to shoot, you figure, two or three, and to make those birdies and eagle on the last was tremendous.”

Sullivan, making his first start of the season, felt that hitting the fairways was paramount given the combination of thick rough and firm greens.

“For me, I think if you want to shoot a score, you’ve got to be in the fairway,” Sullivan said. “You can be as far up as you want but you’re still losing control. The greens are firm enough, and the pins are tucked, where you’re struggling to get out if you’re not in the fairway.”

Nicolai Højgaard, fellow Danes Søren Kjeldsen and Thorbjørn Olesen, South African Louis de Jager, Spaniard Sebastian Garcia, England’s Richard Mansell and Pole Adrian Meronk were then all one stroke back in a tie for fifth on a congested leaderboard in the United Arab Emirates.

Play was suspended due to fading light with three groups remaining on course. They will restart at 07:45 local time with no change to round two tee times.

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