Rory McIlroy's title is safe but he won't ease up just yet
Rory McIlroy's Race to Dubai title is safe but any illusions of a gentle lap of honour for the World No 1 at the DP World Tour Championship were dispelled yesterday as Shane Lowry burst out of the pack and turned Europe's end-of-season climax into a thrilling Irish duel in the Arabian Desert.
These two young and sublimely gifted golfers stirred memories of their captivating one-two finish at the BMW PGA at Wentworth as they purred into a share of the lead on the Earth Course in Dubai with a brace of splendid first-round 66s.
Their glorious match-up in the final group today offers an intriguing clash of styles between Holywood star McIlroy (25), the greatest young player of his generation, and Offaly champion Lowry (27), whose rare touch and talent will propel him one day far higher than his current ranking of No 52 in the world.
These guys go way back. A story is told of a visit paid by Ulsterman Graeme McDowell's coach Pete Cowen to an Irish panel session in the early 90s in his former capacity as a consultant to the GUI. When asked about the prodigious McIlroy, the Yorkshireman intoned: "You've got another one there, the chubby kid with glasses."
Since playing together on the Irish side that won the European Amateur Team Championships in 2007, their career paths diverged.
McIlroy embarked on a stellar professional career after that year's Walker Cup, while Lowry helped Ireland defend the European title and take glory at the Home Internationals in 2008 before writing history at Baltray with his astonishing victory as an amateur in the following year's Irish Open.
They've met on the course a few times since Lowry joined the European Tour five years ago. Lowry was better in their most recent confrontations in 2013 as the Ulsterman took a walk on the dark side.
When they played together in the first two rounds of last year's Irish Open in Carton, Lowry was nine strokes the better as McIlroy missed the cut, while he scored a stunning one-hole win over his Down rival in round one of that year's Accenture Match Play.
McIlroy has changed utterly in the past 12 months, growing stronger physically and mentally, evidenced by this summer's two Majors, the leadership role he assumed on Paul McGinley's victorious team at the Ryder Cup and with yesterday's hugely impressive effort in Dubai.
This course is made for McIlroy. It's not by accident that he has played 21 rounds here in a whopping 80-under par since the inaugural Dubai World Tour Championship in 2009.
Yet McIlroy's ability to equal his low score on The Earth Course and post one of only two bogey-free rounds after more than six weeks without hitting a shot on Tour is Tigeresque.
It bears remarkable testament to his confidence, his technique and the practice and training routines that sustain them.
He birdied four of the first five yesterday and recovered astutely on the rare occasions his driver led him astray. For example, after tugging his approach to 12 into a deep swale left of the green, McIlroy hit an exquisite flop shot to five feet and made the putt.
Lowry, playing his 10th event in an exhausting 12 weeks, showed his true resilience by banishing all thought of last Sunday's stinging surrender of a share of the lead at the Turkish Open.
Playing neatly and putting infallibly, Lowry racked up three birdies in his first five holes, made his only bogey at 10 after choosing the driver off the tee ("like an eejit") and hitting his ball into a trap, then adroitly polished off four more birdies in the final third.
Seeing these polar opposites playing together should be intriguing. Lowry is over 6ft 1in and a beefy 102 kilograms, while McIlroy, though three inches smaller, is all muscle and squat-thrusts weights far heavier than his fellow Irishman.
On Twitter this week, he was pictured lifting massive dumb-bells.
"They weren't as heavy as they look," he said, adding nonchalantly, "just 120 kilos, that's 275 pounds" - suggesting he'd be capable of lifting Lowry over his head on the first tee this morning, instead of offering the traditional handshake.
McIlroy's length, strength and accuracy with the driver, giving him exponentially shorter shots into greens, is the cornerstone of his game.
With his drives averaging an eminently respectable 292 yards, Lowry is over 13 yards shorter and, Tour stats suggest, also is a tad less accurate from tee to green.
But he's blessed with an outstanding short game and deft putting touch, needing just 28.99 putts per round against 29.11 by McIlroy.
McIlroy's Race to Dubai title is secure but Lowry can rise from 17th to a possible second place in standings (worth $800,000) if he picks up the 1.666 million points (and $1.333m cash) available to Sunday's winner.
McDowell opened with a frustrating 72, while a dodgy dinner on Wednesday took grave effect on Belfast's Michael Hoey as he posted a one-over 73.