Rory McIlroy was still Irish golf's ‘Boy Wonder' when he won in Dubai last February. One year later, he's ‘The Man' at the Emirates.
The 20-year-old has done a lot of growing up in the last 12 months and his maturity shone through yesterday as he marched through driving wind and choking clouds of sand — or was it concrete dust? — to the head of the camel train also known as the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Okay, conditions weren't all that bad, but this corner of the Arabian Desert and the way McIlroy plays the Majlis course inspires hyperbole.
The Holywood youngster's performance as he opened his first defence of a European Tour title was impressive indeed. He showed patience and persistence when required, then no little flair on the back nine as he compiled a four-under-par 68 to share the lead with five others.
Sitting alongside McIlroy at the top table are Jeev Milkha Singh (38), overjoyed by last Friday's birth of his first child, a boy; Charl Schwartzel (25) named ‘Player of the Month' for January after back-to-back wins in his native South Africa; Edoardo Molinari (28), a World Cup winner for Italy with his brother Francesco in November; hardy young Swede Alex Noren (27) and Welsh veteran Stephen Dodd (43).
Yet there's only one other player in the world whose game is as well suited as McIlroy's to the Majlis and he's supposedly trying out a different course right now — for sex addiction at a Mississippi clinic.
“I do feel very comfortable on this golf course. I feel as if the tee shots suit me. I feel as if I've got most of the shots I need to do well out here,” said McIlroy yesterday, after walking the walk.
Looking back to the first-round 64 which set him on the road to victory last February, McIlroy went on: “That's probably the easiest 64 I'll ever shoot. Today was much more of a grind and I had to stay so patient out there.
“You were hitting good shots to 25, 30 feet all the time and it's hard to take chances from there,” added McIlroy. “So when I did get a few chances, I took them and didn't make any stupid mistakes, which was nice. Just one bogey in these conditions is pretty solid golf.”
His solitary bogey came after a long delay on the second tee, where McIlroy yanked his drive so far left, he needed to drop off a cart path on the Wadi course.
But he bounced back with a lucky birdie-four at three, courtesy of a 25-foot putt which struck the hole so hard, the ball cannoned nearly a foot into the air before dropping.
McIlroy's knowledge of golf is also impressive. For example, he was able to give a quick-fire biographic note yesterday on each of the four Ryder Cup vice-captains chosen by US skipper Corey Pavin for Celtic Manor.
“Well, Paul Goydos was beaten by Sergio Garcia at the Players in 2008,” he said. “Tom Lehman won the Open at Lytham in '96; Jeff Sluman won a few times on the PGA Tour, along with the PGA in '88; and Davis Love III was PGA champion at Winged Foot in '97 — that rainbow came out over the course, which was touching, as his father had recently died.” Wow!
McIlroy's certain to make his Ryder Cup debut in October and the plethora of recent young winners on Tour suggests six rookies could make Monty's team.
This offers strong hope of a captain's pick for experienced individuals like Darren Clarke, whose recent good form was underscored by his sturdy 71.
The Ulsterman's only slip was a missed three-foot putt at the ninth hole, his last. Graeme McDowell posted a solid 72, one better than Gareth Maybin and Damien McGrane, while Michael Hoey (75), Irish Open champion Shane Lowry (75) and Peter Lawrie (77) were left disappointed.