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Graeme McDowell left to play catch-up in Dubai race

By Karl MacGinty

Graeme McDowell looked straight into Martin Kaymer’s eyes as they shook hands on the first tee before yesterday’s showdown in the desert sun and saw absolutely nothing.

Not a flicker of anticipation nor even the slightest sign of the nerves the 25-year-old German must have felt as he prepared the first shot that counted in what he freely admits is “the biggest week of my life”.

“He’d be a hell of a poker player,” admitted McDowell.

Kaymer’s greatness goes without saying — especially after the first round 67 which lifted him to within two strokes of Robert Karlsson’s tournament lead and left him five clear of McDowell, his only rival in the Race to Dubai.

Barely a dozen words were spoken between these two Ryder Cup comrades during yesterday’s fraught confrontation on The Earth Course in Dubai.

Three of them were uttered by McDowell on the third hole after Kaymer holed-out for eagle with a superlative, 192 yards seven-iron which flew high and, drawing ever so slightly, honed-in on the flag like a laser-guided missile.

“Well done,” said McDowell to Kaymer as he offered him a congratulatory high-five.

As he walked away, the Ulsterman added the word “Awesome!”, saying it loud enough to be heard by spectators by the fairway ropes.

Later, McDowell would smile when someone suggested he’d been admirably enthusiastic in congratulating his opponent.

“Enthusiastic is a bit strong,” he quipped, “But it’s always great to see a guy hole a shot like that.”

Even when it followed a birdie on the par five second hole and put Kaymer three strokes ahead after just three holes? Even when McDowell was grappling with his own game and already was embroiled in a day-long struggle to find the pace of the greens?

That the Portrush man is made of the right stuff would be seen to even better effect later in the afternoon as three potentially mortal blows were dealt to his hopes of winning The Dubai World Champion over four holes through the turn.

McDowell’s US Open heroics at Pebble Beach last June and unforgettable match-clinching performance at The Ryder Cup were founded on his unerring consistency in sinking second putts anywhere from zero to six feet.

So the three-putt bogeys he incurred on the ninth, 11th and 12th holes yesterday must have come as a numbing shock to his system.

After just 12 holes yesterday, he wallowed seven shots behind Kaymer. Did McDowell despair? Not a bit of it! Instead, he defiantly chiseled out two birdies and a remarkable round of level par.

“I didn’t feel 100 per cent and I had to dig deep today,” he admitted. “I’m very happy with level par considering I started throwing shots away around the turn.

“It was hard because there was a match play element to it and Martin got off to a flier. He actually played fantastic, all credit to him, but he’s five shots ahead of me, that’s all it is and there’s 54 holes to go there’s a lot of golf to be played at the weekend.”

As he set out yesterday, Kaymer needed only to beat McDowell to win the Race to Dubai, while the Ulsterman had to see off virtually the rest of the elite 60-man field to overtake the German.

With yesterday’s performance, the US PGA Champion showed he is back to his formidable best and is capable of claiming his fifth tournament victory of the season on Sunday and, in the process, possibly replace Lee Westwood at the top of the world rankings.

While Kaymer lay third last night, two behind Karlsson and one shy of Korea’s Seung-Yul Noh, the Englishman, after an impressive bogey-free 69, was prominent with fellow countryman Ian Poulter in a six-way tie for fifth on three-under.

Two shots further behind Poulter in Dubai and one ahead of McDowell were his fellow countrymen Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke, who shot a one-under par 70, while Ballyclare man Gareth Maybin finished his first round at one over.

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