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Rory McIlroy's old problems return as lead surrendered in Abu Dhabi while Graeme McDowell faces nervous wait



Rory McIlroy endured a frustrating second round in Abu Dhabi.

Rory McIlroy endured a frustrating second round in Abu Dhabi.

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Graeme McDowell is in the clubhouse at level par after two rounds in Abu Dhabi.

Graeme McDowell is in the clubhouse at level par after two rounds in Abu Dhabi.

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Rory McIlroy endured a frustrating second round in Abu Dhabi.

Rory McIlroy's old problems returned on Friday as his first round lead evaporated with an in-form Tyrrell Hatton striding clear at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

The Northern Irish star had shot a bogey-free 64 on Thursday to hold a one-shot lead and, two under through three holes of his second round, that form looked set to continue.

However, his first bogey of the week was followed immediately by a double and after two further drop shots before his second round was halted by light, McIlroy ended Friday in a four-way tie for second on seven under par, five shots behind Englishman Hatton.

At one over for the day, McIlroy is the only player inside the top 23 to be over par for his second round as his old struggles made an unwelcome come-back.

The 31-year-old hit less than half of the fairways before his round was called to a halt on the 15th, and was punished often for leaving himself short-sided by missing greens in the wrong places.

The signs were there from the very first shot of the day, shortly after McIlroy had been roared onto the tee with shouts of 'Green and White Army' from some of 400 fans who were admitted access to Abu Dhabi GC.

His drive leaked left and only a top class approach led to birdie against the odds, with the tee-shot not set up for a pin tucked close to the left edge of the green.

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That error of leaving his ball in the wrong place reappeared on the second, McIlroy's second shot finding the bunker and leading to a failure to birdie a par five for the first time this week. Once again two holes later, it was an approach into the sand that cost bogey.

Then the familiar McIlroy issue of swift error multiplication came back with a tee-shot into trees left on the following hole. It was accompanied by another approach in the wrong place and ultimately cost a double.

A further bogey at the tenth could be put down to a similar combination while a duffed bunker shot on the 13th led to another drop shot.

There were plus points - lengthy birdie putts dropped on the eighth and the 14th - but once again the over-riding narrative will be McIlroy failing to add to early promise.

It's a recognisable problem. While none were quite as low as this week's eight-under opener, of McIlroy's five best first rounds in 2021, three were followed up with over par second rounds while neither of the other two led to a serious title charge either.

The world number six will be determined to use to break in place to reset but if he can't rediscover Thursday's steady form over his 22 holes on Saturday, none of the questions raised by his winless 2020 will vanish into the Abu Dhabi sun.

Hatton, however, had no such problem in adding to his promising opening round 65. Helped by a third eagle of the week and a four-in-a-row birdie streak, he's five under through 10 holes of his second round and -12 for the week.

"I'm obviously in a great position at the moment," said the 29-year-old, who won the Arnold Palmer Invitational and BMW PGA Championship last year.

"It was certainly tough out there so I'm really happy to be five under. There were a couple of par putts toward the end of my round; it was nice to hole them and keep a bit of momentum going."

Meanwhile, things weren't any easier for McIlroy's compatriot Graeme McDowell, who faces an anxious overnight wait to discover whether or not he will be teeing it up this weekend.

The 2010 US Open champion had been one under par after 10 holes at close of play on Thursday but, up early to resume, he was two shots further down the leaderboard by the mid-point of his second round.

He looked to have made an impressive fightback to sneak inside the cut-line with back-to-back birdies on his closing nine but, on his final hole of a long day, he dropped what could prove to be a crucial shot to finish on level par for the week.

As the hooter sounded on Friday, that left him in a tie for 66th and requiring a shift when the second round resumes, with only the top 65 and ties making the weekend.

Having slipped to 82nd in the world golf rankings, McDowell could do with sneaking through as he faces a race to get into this year's Masters, requiring a top 50 position the week before the year's opening major, which is scheduled to take place on April 8-11.

Almost certainly not making it through to the weekend is 2019 Open champion Shane Lowry, who is in the clubhouse at one over par. He paid for a slack three over par opening round that included four bogeys and a triple at the par four ninth.

Padraig Harrington, however, is sitting at two under par for the week and inside the cut-mark with six holes of his second round still to play.

Over on the PGA TOUR Champions' Mitsubishi Electric Championship in Hawaii, Darren Clarke was in contention after his nine under par opening round, just a shot behind leader Retief Goosen.

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