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McIlroy starts to show strain

By Karl MacGinty

Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy are as friendly as two guys separated by 16 years can be — yet the handshake between them on the first tee in Dubai yesterday was perfunctory, while the smile they both donned for the official photograph seemed just a little stiff.

For Westwood, 36, a formidable 12-years veteran on the European Tour, the opening round of the Dubai World Championship might almost have been just another day at the office.

Yet McIlroy, 20 and in only his third season as a professional, had never been in a situation remotely like this.

As leader of the inaugural Race to Dubai, the Holywood prodigy had been paired with his closest rival and International Sports Management stablemate Westwood in the final group on the opening day of the Tour's five million euro end-of-season showpiece.

These two have dined together often in foreign cities and exchanged banter on many a far-flung fairway — but the

conversation between them yesterday was a tad more stilted than usual.

“There wasn't that much chat to be honest,” the youngster confessed.

Inevitably, McIlroy's swing wasn't as fluent either. So it's to the enormous credit of this young Ulsterman (and his putter!) that he'd emerge from this fascinating first day 'duel' in the desert sun just two strokes shy of Westwood's polished 66 and match the four-under par 32 shot by the Englishman on the back nine.

Westwood went into today's second round tied for second with his lanky fellow-countryman Chris Wood, 21, and Colombia's Camilo Villegas, one behind accomplished Aussie Robert Allenby, back in membership of the European Tour this year after 11 years winning mega-bucks in the 'States.

Meanwhile, McIlroy shared fifth place on four-under with Padraig Harrington, Aussie Adam Scott, Thomas Aiken of South Africa and China's Wen-Chong Liang.

Significantly, this meant McIlroy would not be paired with Westwood — good news for both of them, according to the youngster, confessing that he probably focussed a little too much attention on his rival in the Race to Dubai during yesterday's front nine, rather than the primary task of winning this week's tournament.

“When Lee went a few in front, I wanted to make a couple of birdies, definitely,” he explained. “I was level par walking up the ninth and seeing that a couple of guys, Allenby and Villegas, were on six-under sort of gave me a kick in the backside.

“I thought to myself, right, come on, you want to try and win this tournament and not just finish off the race to Dubai, so it was great to shoot that back nine and keep myself right in there.”

Not for the first time yesterday, McIlroy tugged his approach to nine, leaving himself badly short-sided in the left greenside trap. Crucially, he got up-and-down to save par and later described the 12 footer he sank there as the most significant of an impressive series of saving putts he'd make yesterday.

“That was a really big putt for me. I'd make another good one for par at 12 and again at 17. It's very encouraging to putt so well on the first day of a tournament,” said McIlroy.

Among the endless facts and stats churned out by the Tour's computers was one projecting where each player would stand in the Race to Dubai if the tournament ended after yesterday's 18 holes — Westwood led McIlroy by 153,033euros, while the only other two players with a chance of winning the Order of Merit, Martin Kaymer (71) and Ross Fisher (73) held station at third and fourth respectively.

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