DUBAI - Rory McIlroy confirmed he is back on top form with a stunning 63 as the first round of the $2.5 million Dubai Desert Classic got underway Thursday with a barrage of birdies.
Firing seven birdies and an eagle, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland continued his storming start to the season which saw him take second place at Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, his first tournament since winning the Australian Open in early December. It was a flawless display of golf that left playing partner Tiger Woods in the shade, although the world number one was happy to settle for a four-under 68 in what is also his second tournament of the year. His opener last week at Torrey Pines, San Diego ended in him firing a 79 on Saturday to miss the secondary cut at the Farmers Insurance Open.
The third member of the group, defending champion Stephen Gallacher of Scotland, was also high up the early leaderboard with a 66. McIlroy said that the round and score was one of his finest for a while. "Definitely up there. Controlled my irons a little better (than at Abu Dhabi), distance control was better. Wedges are still not where I want them to be but it's getting close. It was good." With playing conditions ideal at the par-72 Majlis Course, hosting the 25th anniversary of a tournament which blazed new paths for the European Tour and brought the Gulf region onto the golfing map, scoring was understandably low.
Playing down the easier back nine to start with, McIlroy, on the rebound after a frustrating 2013, had five birdies in seven holes from the 12th to briefly take the lead at the turn. Minutes later Frenchman Julien Quesne pitched a sand wedge into the 17th green from 105 yards and it spun back into the hole for eagle which eased him out to six under. But a birdie at the second and a 10-foot putt for eagle at the third saw McIlroy back on the pace. He then sunk a 15-footer at the par-three seventh to get to nine under and only Quesne was within three strokes of his pace-setting at that stage.
The Ulsterman parred his way in from there, coming up just short with a 15-footer for birdie at the last. It was his first 63 in tournament play since the first round of the Hong Kong Open in 2010 Woods, meanwhile, started well with four birdies down the back nine and while he struggled for accuracy off the tee on the way in, his short game was good enough to avoid any bogeys. "Overall it was a pretty good score. Maybe could have gotten two more out of it," said Woods. "I hit a lot of good putts which was nice. Last week I didn't do it. It was nice to actually play well again.
Quesne was rock solid till the ninth, his last, when he went into the water and took a double bogey to card a fine 66. In-form South African Richard Sterne was level with the Frenchman and Gallacher, while joining Woods on 68 were Scotland's Paul Lawrie, Soren Kjeldsen of Denmark and South African Hennie Otto. Among the starters in the afternooon were South African veteran and record three-time winner of the Dubai Desert Classic Ernie Els playing alongside world number three Henrik Stenson of Sweden and Thomas Bjorn of Denmark.
Both Stenson and Els though got off to poor starts with bogeys at the first hole, before the big Swede dropped another shot at the second.