It was a tale of two nines for Rory McIlroy at Emirates Golf Club as he set about the defence of his Dubai Desert Classic title, and both Tom McKibbin and Padraig Harrington battled to remain in the weekend hunt.
Starting his tournament on the 10th hole, the world number two birdied the par-5 opener and moved to -2 after his good eagle opportunity yielded a routine birdie on the 13th. Two became three when he rolled in a 10-footer on the 16th, and another towering iron-shot found the back of the putting surface on the par-5 18th and an excellent lag-putt saw him clean up and make the turn at -4, seemingly in perfect control.
Things took a turn for the worse on the par-4 first when, with incredible bad luck, his crushed tee shot bounded into the semi-rough at the edge of the fairway, nestling down into a horrible lie which made holding the green virtually impossible. From just over the back, his chip was a little light and his six-foot par-putt slid by.
Quickly regrouping, he drove it 357 yards onto the back of the second green and two-putted to get the stroke back, but missed a seven-footer for birdie on the par-5 third after finding the fairway bunker off the tee.
Things began to unravel on the sixth when his short-iron approach to a back pin came up well short and three-putted, missing from three-and-a-half feet with his second. A flubbed pitch on the par-3 seventh lead to back-to-back bogeys, and two-in-a-row became three when he pulled another short iron at the eighth and couldn’t get up-and-down from a tricky lie.
A closing par got him to the house at -1, and with the wind picking up and the firm greens drying further, he’s unlikely to be more than four strokes off the lead, currently held solo by Hoatong Li, when day one is in the books, but he still cut a frustrated figure as he declined to speak to the media after emerging from the scoring tent.
One behind McIlroy at level-par, Tom McKibbin had a much less eventful round, trading two birdies with two bogeys – one of each on either nine – but it will be the par-5 scoring that will have left the 21-year-old, now in his second DP World Tour campaign, feeling most aggrieved.
The par-5s have always been key to scoring holes at the Emirates Course, and McKibbin didn’t give himself a particularly close birdie opportunity on any of them, making par on each. Also starting on the back, his first birdie came on the par-4 17th and brought him back to level par after dropping a shot on the 11th. The second birdie came on the par-3 fourth, but a wayward tee shot on the next forced him to layup short of the water and couldn’t get up-and-down from 135 yards so dropped back to level par which is where he finished.
Harrington, making his first appearance of the season having battled pneumonia and a partial collapsed lung over the winter, also struggled on the longer holes, playing the par-5s in two-over as he birdied three but bogeyed four on his way to a one-over 73.
Despite finishing up the wrong side of par, he’s likely to be a stroke either on or a stroke either side of the cutline at the end of the day and anything under par in Friday’s second round should see him through to the weekend and something in the 60s would see him well placed for a charge over the final two rounds.