Rory McIlroy might not think much of Greg Norman’s latest role, but there can be no doubt he approves of the Australian’s design work. Indeed, he underlined his love of the Earth Course here with a first-round 65 that thrust him into the lead of the DP World Tour Championship.
There is an irony in the European Tour contesting its glittering finale to the season on a layout created by Norman 13 years ago. After all, the circuit – along with the PGA Tour – is currently doing everything it can to dissuade the top players from being lured to the Saudis mooted rebel tour. And the CEO of that venture happens to be Norman himself.
McIlroy has long been against the formation of an F1 type series that will rival the traditional tours and when asked here on Tuesday if anything had occurred recently that has inspired him to change his mind he replied: “No there’s been a select few individuals who have come on board that have only hardened my view even more.” McIlroy did not mention Norman by name but the inference was clear. He is not a fan.
In contrast, this place means the earth to him. McIlroy has won here on two occasions – both times scooping the Race to Dubai title as a result – and is a collective 147-under. That is a staggering 46 shots better than anyone else. The greatest thing on Earth does not begin to describe it.
“I’ve always played well here, even going back to when [Lee] Westwood won in 2009,” he said. “I had a chance then – I’ve always been up there. And, in truth, this did feel like an easy 65. When you’re six-under through eight and you shoot seven-under you feel like you left a few out there. I guess it’s swings and roundabouts. I’m not going to complain about shooting 65.”
McIlroy was three-under after two, after birdieing the first and eagling the second. The rescue club on the latter was vintage McIlroy. “I was 261 [yards] away, back into the wind. I hit my rescue about 260, 265, but I flushed it,” he said. “If it had been calm conditions, it might gone more like 270 or 275. It was nice to make that [12-foot] putt. A great way to start.”
On days such as this it is difficult to equate that free-flowing picture of rhythm with that frigid figure of uncertainty who played so poorly on the first two days of the Ryder Cup seven weeks ago. McIlroy bounced back from that disappointment – he was in tears at the end at the woefulness of his contribution to Europe’s cause – by winning his next event, the CJ Cup in Las Vegas. By then he had stepped back from coach Pete Cowen and faced his issues head on
“I’m a big boy now. I’ve been around the block and if I have problems or struggles, I should be able to sort them out myself,” he said. “Instead of looking to others to fix my problems, I’m going to take responsibility. That’s what I did after The Ryder Cup. Put my head down and spent a lot of time just on the range and figuring out, okay, ‘what is it do I do well and what do I need to get back to.’”
Which is? “I’ve always been a very visual player,” he added. “I always see shots. I don’t know how much the shot tracer was out there today, but people probably see me playing shots again. Maybe not quite as much as Bubba Watson but still that’s how I’ve always played golf and seen the game, and I just need to get back to seeing it like that again.”
On seven-under he is two clear of Finland’s Tapo Pulkkanen, South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Joachim B Hansen, the Dane who won here on the adjacent Fire Course on Sunday. Collin Morikawa is in the group on four-under and the world No 2 now must be the overwhelming favourite to make history as the first American ever to win the European Tour’s order of merit.