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Hong Kong Open: McIlroy has top spot in his sights

By Karl MacGinty

Rory McIlroy breathed life back into the European Tour's Race to Dubai yesterday.

The sublime first-round 64 which propelled Rory McIlroy into the lead at the Hong Kong Open was compiled with enough confidence and aplomb to serve as a timely shot across the bows of Luke Donald.

The 22-year-old Ulsterman needs to win or finish second this weekend to have any chance of spiking world No 1 and runaway Race to Dubai leader Donald's dream of becoming the first man in history to win the official money list on both sides of the Atlantic in the same year.

Though joined on six-under by his dogged former amateur sparring partner David Horsey of England and swashbuckling Spaniard Alvaro Quiros, who chipped in for an eagle three at 12 and a birdie at the last, McIlroy's in a league of his own when he strikes rich scoring form like this on a golf course he knows and enjoys.

Naturally, McIlroy was making no victory pledges after just 18 of 72 holes, but he could not conceal the pleasure he took from a good day's work on the golf course.

“It was good, a very solid round of golf,” he explained. “I didn't make a mistake and six birdies with no bogeys is always a nice way to start a tournament.

“Normally, it's warm here with not that much wind,” McIlroy added. “Yet the wind today obviously was a big factor, while the greens are a lot firmer and a lot faster than usual, which makes it tougher to get close to the hole.

“It usually plays a little bit easier, so I feel this was a very good round by me — very controlled. I controlled my ball flight, hit 17 greens in regulation, gave myself a few chances and managed to take advantage of them.

“Funnily, if you'd seen me hitting balls on the range beforehand, you'd have thought I'd shoot 74 instead of 64. Once I got on the golf course, I began to find my rhythm and I have given myself a good platform to build on.”

Unlike last Sunday's disappointing World Cup climax at Mission Hills, McIlroy putted with assurance yesterday.

His aggression with the putter was founded on his confidence in his ability, where necessary, to hole four, five and six-footers on the way back. Long may it last.

Pointedly, McIlroy is the only member of the top 10 in the Race to Dubai playing this week's final ‘regular' event on the European Tour schedule; Donald and second-placed Martin Kaymer are among those chasing megabucks at the Nedbank Challenge instead.

Yet there are so many intriguing sub-plots to this week's Hong Kong Open, the ‘wheelbarrow brigade' will hardly be missed. Much of the drama centres on the Tour's ‘relegation zone' and Gareth Maybin made a splendid start in his bid to save his playing credentials for 2012 with a bogey-free 66 which left the Belfast man tied fifth overnight on four-under.

After notching four birdies in an impressive six-hole stretch on his outward nine, Maybin really battened down the hatches for the journey home; not surprising given his precarious 120th position in the Order of Merit.

Maybin needs to climb at least two rungs up the ladder to hang onto his card for next year and his prospects of doing so looked very good last night as those around him on the money list struggled.

While Keith Horne (119th in the Order of Merit) hovered on the cut mark after his two-over-par 72 and Simon Khan (118th) shot a 73, Mark Tullo (117th), Philip Price (116th) and Markus Brier (115th) didn't even get into the tournament.

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