DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy shot a 30 on the back nine Thursday at the Dubai World Championship to gain the early advantage over top-ranked Luke Donald in the duel for the European money title.
The 22-year-old McIlroy had six birdies – including sinking a 20-foot putt at the last – on the back nine for a 6-under 66 and finished third behind leader Peter Hanson of Sweden (64) and 1999 British Open champion Paul Lawrie of Scotland (65).
The Northern Irishman, who came from behind to win last week’s Hong Kong Open, made a “couple of silly mistakes” on the front nine. He had a double-bogey on the second hole and bogeyed No. 8 after hitting over the back of the green.
“It was a perfect start to the tournament for me,” said McIlory, who has been complaining of fatigue from a lingering virus. “To shoot a great score like that really sets me up nicely for the next three days. The back nine was just pretty much flawless.
“I held some really, really nice putts. Just giving myself chances and opportunities for birdies, and lucky enough I was able to make a few.”
Donald, who played alongside McIlroy, sank four birdies on the front nine but struggled on the back, making three consecutive bogeys to shoot a 72 for a share of 26th place.
The 34-year-old Englishman played his first tournament last week in South Africa after a five-week break so he could attend the birth of his second daughter and bury his father, who died unexpectedly last month.
“A mixture of two halves really,” Donald said. “I played solid the front nine and hit a few shots that cost me, poor drives on 14 and 15 and it was bit of a loose back nine, unfortunately. But trying to get better from here on out.”
McIlroy’s performance keeps the Race to Dubai alive. He must win the $7.5 million tournament and hope Donald finishes outside the top nine. Should Donald win the Race to Dubai, he would become the first to win both the European and PGA Tour money titles.
Two years ago, McIlroy lost the European money title when Lee Westwood won in Dubai to move past him. This time, he is happy to be in second spot.
“It’s sort of taken the pressure off me,” McIlroy said. “I’m sort of like, well, I’m not 100 percent and if that doesn’t quite happen, it doesn’t happen and there is nothing I can do about it. You can just go about your game and try and play as well as you can.”
Donald acknowledged it was a challenge playing alongside someone in such great form as McIlroy.
“It’s always hard playing with Rory,” he said. “It almost feels like a bit of a match-play kind of scenario. But the goal is to concentrate on myself and just try and do what I can do to try and win this tournament. Hopefully, the rest will take care of itself.”
The only other golfer to have a run like McIlroy was Hanson, who made six birdies on the back nine and eight overall. The 49th-ranked Swede is looking for his first win this year and fifth career victory on the tour.
“Overall, it’s the best golf I’ve played,” Hanson said. “It’s a quite demanding golf course and the wind picked up a little bit over the back nine, so I’m very, very happy with the way I struck the ball and I rolled in a few putts.”
Lawrie, who briefly held the clubhouse lead, was a surprise second considering the 163rd-ranked Scot has won only once this year and hasn’t had a top-10 finish since coming fifth at the Iberdrola Open in May.
“I played really nice today. Hit the ball solid,” Lawrie said. “Gave myself an awful lot of chances out there, especially a wee run from the fifth through to the 14th.”
The third-ranked Westwood and No. 4 Martin Kaymer both shot 73s.