It's another first for our Rory as he gets a hole-in-one
First ace as a pro is timely lift for McIlroy
Timing is everything - as Rory McIlroy brilliantly proved yesterday.
Not only with his momentous first hole-in-one in nearly 200 tournaments since turning professional in 2007 but also in the timing of his golf swing, which was back in perfect working order as a second-round 66 thrust McIlroy into hot pursuit of leader Martin Kaymer at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship.
McIlroy drove like the World No 1 once again following a 35-minute tune-up from his coach Michael Bannon on the practice range on Thursday.
The 25-year-old struck his golf ball so well, he rated his present level of performance "between 80 to 85 per cent" of his Major-winning best - quite an achievement in his first event of the year.
"I felt like Thursday was a little scrappy but today I hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens. I hit a lot of quality golf shots. That's what I've been seeing in practice over the last 10 days so it's nice to see it on the course," he explained.
It had looked as if he was going to be stymied by an infuriating series of missed putts, culminating in a couple of real gasket-blowers at 13 and 14, but McIlroy bounced back by holing from 177 yards with his nine-iron at the par-three 15th.
This classy effort, which pitched just left of the hole and took one more small hop before rolling into the cup, had the sponsors dancing jigs of delight as McIlroy moved to within striking distance of Kaymer, setting up an irresistible duel in the desert sun this weekend.
At one point early yesterday, the accomplished German, 29, a three-times winner in seven previous visits to Abu Dhabi, appeared almost invincible as a faultless second-round 67 eased him four strokes clear.
By day's end, Thomas Pieters, 22, a big-hitting, highly-talented but inexperienced Belgian, had closed to within one of the lead.
But it was McIlroy's emergence from the pack to take outright third with a career-best 11-under par tally at half-way in Abu Dhabi that sent a wave of excitement around the fairways.
He relishes such an early opportunity to measure himself against Kaymer.
"I couldn't think of a better way to start a season than against one of the world's best, a two-time Major champion, who plays this course phenomenally well. So, I'm looking forward to it," McIlroy explained.
McIlroy's second round started brightly with birdies at one and two. However, he stalled badly on the greens, even missing a three-footer at six to save par after visiting a greenside bunker.
One-under through the turn, McIlroy made a tap-in birdie at 10 after rolling a 12-foot eagle putt over the lip. He then holed for eight feet for another at 11 but missed a glorious chance from just 40 inches at 13 before letting another opportunity slip at the next.
Critically, that ace at 15 (following one there by Miguel Angel Jimenez on Thursday) removed the putter from the equation.
"Thankfully, I didn't need to take it out on that hole," quipped McIlroy, explaining why his first hole-in-one in tournament play as a pro was perfectly timed.
He's had "about 10", achieving his first aged nine on Holywood Golf Club's short sixth after hitting a nine-iron "106 yards or something".
"You hear of guys never having a hole-in-one in their career," he said. "Obviously there's skill involved but a bit of luck as well. I've come close but it's nice to get one out there finally.
"Down the years, I've had holes-in-one where it hadn't been a great shot but took a nice bounce but that was a good one," McIlroy said.
"It was straight downwind, 177 yards and I had a nine-iron. I just stepped up and it felt good, straight off the bat."
Unlike Tom Lewis, who won an $80,000 Cadillac Escalade with his first-round hole-in-one at seven, Jimenez and McIlroy earned nothing but the honour at the next.
Yet with good karma and confidence spreading even to his stuttering putter, that ace may yet yield rich dividends for the Ulsterman.
However, Darren Clarke (71) and Michael Hoey (74) both missed out on one-under.
Hoey undid Thursday's good work with a brace of double-bogeys on his opening two holes and never recovered.