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Dubai Desert Classic: Rory McIlroy finds his touch to turn up the heat

By Kevin Garside

It's not all about the Hollywood tee shot, you know. Rory McIlroy demonstrated the full range of his repertoire to close two off the lead with a 68 on the opening day of the Dubai Desert Classic at the Emirates Club.

McIlroy began his round at the 10th hole with a bogey six and was in the water off the tee at the 18th before recovering to record a remarkable birdie.

For once it was not the Ulsterman's imperious driving that catapulted him into a share of sixth place but his putting, an area of his game in which he has invested much effort.

"I still feel there's room for improvement in that part of the game, but it's definitely got better," he said.

"I feel like I've got a consistent routine in practice and that definitely helps on the course.

"Sometimes it goes your way one week and sometimes you don't quite hole as many as you think you should. Overall, I feel like the consistency of my putting has got much better, so I'm very happy about that."

McIlroy has always been a good scrambler, and that was the requirement in what is only his second tournament of the year after a two-month lay-off, during which he did not swing a club.

His first swing of the day at the par-five 10th had him out of position and, after taking two to escape the greenside bunker, he needed to hole a 12-footer for his bogey.

His drive at the par-five 18th was, in fact, so well hit that it reached water hitherto thought to be out of reach. The drop shot was negated with a brilliant approach and the birdie putt found the centre of the cup.

Three birdies in four holes on his back nine put a fine gloss on what could have been a much darker day.

"I thought I did well, considering the start and having some of the shots I hit throughout the round," he said.

"The score was probably a fair reflection of how I played. To be able to shoot something at least in the sixties was very pleasing.

"I didn't have any best stuff out there at some points, but when I got myself out of position I was able to get myself back in position and make pars and a few birdies.

"All in all, I feel like it was a good round of golf."

Europe's Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke found himself at the head of the field alongside Alex Noren on six under par with five to play, only to drop as many strokes coming in, including a double at the sixth, his 15th, to close on one under.

There was better news of fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell who made a 69 in his first European Tour appearance of the season.

He had a win and a third in successive weeks at low-key PGA Tour events in November but missed the cut at the Sony Open in Hawaii three weeks ago, damaging his drive to return to the world's top 50 and also automatic qualification for the Ryder Cup.

"Of the four Middle East events we play, this has got to be the best opportunity for me from a golf course point of view," said McDowell, who is ranked 69th in the world.

"The Majlis is a classic golf course. Certainly length helps, but there's a huge premium on accuracy. You've got to drive it in the fairway to give yourself an opportunity to make birdies."

Meanwhile, Shane Lowry made a super start to the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

The Offaly man was tied for the lead with world No 4 Rickie Fowler after the first round.

The duo are on six-under, ahead of a field including Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson (both two-under) and Webb Simpson (three-under).

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