Rory McIlroy stormed into the lead at the Dubai Desert Classic as he completed his delayed second round with a stunning 64.
The Northern Irishman birdied the 12th, 13th, 16th, 17th and 18th to surge two shots clear of Jamie Donaldson on 15 under par.
Fog had delayed play for nearly three hours on Friday which meant McIlroy, Segio Garcia and Henrik Stenson were unable to finish their second round.
Resuming play on the 12th hole early on Saturday, the 28-year-old showed his class to edge into the lead on his second competitive tournament back in nearly four months.
“That was pretty nice,” said McIlroy.
“I knew with the conditions this morning there were chances out there, obviously with the two par fives and 17.
“To take care of those and birdie a couple others, to finish five under for my last seven was a nice way to finish this morning.
“I didn’t really have a score in mind or anything. I just wanted to go out there and play a good seven holes and hopefully get myself into contention for the last couple of rounds.
“I sort of did that and maybe a little bit more and it’s nice to go into the weekend in the lead.
“Probably got a bit of a break between now and going back out there so I’ll probably get a little bit of physio treatment, make sure everything’s okay and hit some balls and practise.
“Look forward to getting out there again this afternoon.”
He almost lost his European Tour card three months ago, but Jamie Donaldson leads the way at halfway of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic after another solid day Friday.
Thursday’s sublime -10 under par 62, which saw the Welshman flirt with the course record of 61 set by Ernie Els nearly a quarter of a century ago, was followed by a more modest -3 under 69 in a weather-interrupted second day which sees him lead by one shot from China’s Li Haotong.
It’s been three-and-a-half years since the 42-year-old’s last win on the European Tour – the D+D Real Czech Masters in August 2014.
But even though he narrowly avoided being forced back to qualifying school when he finished fourth in the final event, the Andalucia Valderrama Masters, to move inside the top 101 of the Race to Dubai standings to secure his playing rights for the 2018 season, the 2014 Ryder Cup hero admits not “slogging” his guts out over the winter is paying dividends.
Whereas other players out of form would have used the winter to regain form and focus – Martin Kaymer, like Donaldson a former winner of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, is a good example – Donaldson used the winter break to reset.
“Over the winter, I took a couple months off and didn’t really hit a ball,” admitted the world number 292, who famously secured the winning point for Europe in the 2014 Ryder Cup, beating Keegan Bradley 4&3, as Europe won 16.5-11.5 at Gleneagles.
“We play so much golf all year. I’ve got two young kids, it’s time to have some family time with them for a couple of months and it was great. I’ve got a nice family life.
62-69 with 13 birdies and one eagle on the card after two rounds.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) January 26, 2018
“You come out for the season nice and fresh and you’re reacting more to what you’ve turned up with, as opposed to slogging yourself to death over the winter.
“Each to his own. Everyone does it differently. That’s what I like to do. And then nearer the time, start playing a little bit.”
Early morning fog meant a delay of nearly three hours at Emirates Golf Club yesterday and all of the later starters will have to complete their second rounds from 7:30am this morning – including the playing trio of Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and defending champion Sergio Garcia.
South African Branden Grace’s 65 was the lowest completed round of the day and he sat at -11 under, a shot clear of Thomas Aiken and Miguel Angel Jimenez.
Swede Alexander Bjork was also -11 under after 12 holes of his second round, with McIlroy nicely poised at -10 under with seven holes to play.
A hugely popular figure as always was veteran Spaniard Jimenez, a winner here in Dubai in 2010. The 54-yer-old, who plays mostly on the Champions Tour now, carded a -4 under par round of 68 to share fourth place with McIlory, who won here the previous year, in 2009.
That, added to his opening 66 on day one, puts him three shots off the lead. And whereas the fog would have frustrated most players, Jimenez saw it as an opportunity rather than a hindrance.
“It’s not the first time it happened, you know,” said the Malaga native, who was coolness personified in the mixed zone following his round, leisurely puffing on one of his signature cigars.
“This is my 30th season, it happened more than one: a rain delay, fog delay, thunderstorm delay. At the end of the day, you don’t think about it.
“You just go there and relax a little bit, moving around, go and have another breakfast. There’s nothing to do.”
Is there a cooler man in Dubai than #MiguelAngelJimenez?! Doubtful. This is how to conduct a post round interview. What an absolute dude. 🇪🇸. Are you having a bit of a drag of a day?! Pop along to our man @MattJones360’s feed to cheer yourself up pic.twitter.com/j1bvIpT9Ls
— Sport360° (@Sport360) January 26, 2018
Asked how he would prepare for today, he added: “Well, going to finish my cigar, going to have a small nap and I’m going to have a beautiful bottle tonight. Maybe go to the Spanish restaurant in the Souk.”
England’s Matthew Southgate made the second hole-in-one of the season with a nine iron from 154 yards on the seventh, winning himself an Omega Seamaster Aqua Terra en route to a 68 and an eight under par total.
The majority of stars donned pink to support breast cancer awareness yesterday at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic – although for Matthew Southgate, the gesture would have particularly resonated.
The 29-year-old Englishman is a testicular cancer survivor, having battled the disease in 2015. His own battle came months after niece Hettie, then only two-years-old, was diagnosed with leukaemia.
His illness led to the loss of his European Tour card, which he regained for 2016 by qualifying from European Tour Q-School.
As the world number 142 has slowly been regaining his health, so too has his form recovered.
He finished fourth behind Rory McIlroy at the 2016 Irish Open, qualifying for the Open Championship by winning the final qualifying at Royal Cinque Ports.
At Royal Birkdale that year he finished tied 12th and last year gained his best ever finish at a major by finishing in a share of sixth at the same event.
It was somehow fitting that on ‘Pink Friday’, already an emotional day for the Southend-on-Sea native, Southgate made a huge splash by sinking a hole in one on the par-3 seventh.
“It’s really special to anyone who’s had cancer in their lives, or their family’s lives. It just shows how much of an impact it has when everyone clubs together,” a beaming Southgate said of the Pink Friday initiative.
“That’s been my goal since my bout of cancer, I’ve been trying to raise awareness of lads going to get themselves checked and the girls are in the same boat.
“I think it’s something doctors are starting to conquer in the world, more people are surviving, so if we as a tour can club together for the day, I think it’s a really lovely way to show we are a family orientated tour and we care about each other rather than just making birdies and that sort of stuff.
“It’s important and it’s a really special day for all of us.”
Southgate had a perfect view of his hole in one on the 186-yard seventh, with its elevated tee. His tee shot pitched directly in line with hole, took one bounce, rattled the flag and disappeared.
Southgate’s wide smile still adorned his face in the mixed zone after his round, and is unlikely to be wiped away anytime soon.
“I could see it go in. It’s an elevated tee looking down but until it disappears, you don’t know,” he added.
“When it rattled the flag and went in it was a great moment. There was a photographer by the tee so he showed me some great pictures so perhaps I’ll get one of them framed for the games room.
“I played some really nice golf the first few holes and was one over. I wasn’t down in the dumps but I was thinking it’s a bit unfair.
“I haven’t made a cut in a while, that includes the break over Christmas, but it’s time that adds up so you start thinking about it.
“I’ve hit a lovely shot at seven, one shot and in she bounces in, so that really boosted me for the whole day, and every time I thought about it, it put a smile on my face, and I’ve always been a player that excels with a smile on my face.
“It’s good for the weekend and I’m moving up the leaderboard.”
It was his first hole in one on tour since joining in 2011. And he feels it may have had something to do with using a pink tee, something he’s never done before.
“I was robbed in Kazakhstan on the Challenger Tour my first year,” said Southgate.
“I played four rounds and hit the flag twice, lopped out once and hit another one to within three foot, I never thought I was going to get one.
“I’ve hit a few over the years, on the pitching course and with friends. And you need a bit of luck. I’ve kept the ball, kept the tee so it’s amazing. I always use a white tee peg too, never use another colour, but I used a pink one for Pink Friday so it’s nice to get it off that.”
His round of -4 under par saw Southgate sign for a 68 for the second straight day. It leaves him in a 15-way share of 14th, five shots off the lead of Wales’ Jamie Donaldson.
And he’s looking forward to challenging for a maiden European Tour crown.
“It’s set me up for the weekend but also the year too,” he said.
“I’ve always been a field player so I need to be on the course. You can’t create the atmosphere of being on tour on the pitting green. It’s not the same when you’re doing it to save par. I’m really looking forward to the weekend and going on to test myself against the field.”