McIlroy finds feet following 'awkward' start to duel

Ulsterman finishes two shots behind Westwood after struggling to play beside him

Rory McIlroy is not just trying to overcome Lee Westwood here but also his own age and inexperience. That much was perfectly obvious on a first day of the Dubai World Championship in which the young pup felt all the pressure and the old dog went on his normal stroll around the park.

McIlroy is a little over £110,000 in front of Westwood at the top of the European Order of Merit standings in a race which climaxes here on Sunday evening. That might seem a tidy financial advantage until one realises that, with a tournament prize fund of £4.5m, it is actually much less than the difference between second and third place. As cushions go this is far from comfy, particularly as, on six under, Westwood holds a two-shot lead over the 20-year-old.

Yet it could have been so much worse for McIlroy as he attempts to become the second-youngest winner of the European money list. By his own admission he found it "awkward" playing in the final group alongside Westwood – the players were sent out in Race to Dubai order – and on the 12th could easily have fallen five shots behind his playing partner. McIlroy, one under at the time, looked doomed to make a bogey on the 476-yard par four, while Westwood, standing on four under, had played a fine approach to within 12 feet. But McIlroy pulled off a marvellous up-and-down for par and Westwood's birdie attempt stayed above ground. "I needed that to keep the momentum going," agreed McIlroy and successive birdies at the next three holes saw him hurtle to four under.

"It was a great score to build on," said McIlory, with relief written all over those cherubic features. "In truth, I found it tough playing with Lee today. It almost felt like the last group in the final round. I was sort of watching what he was doing. It was hard to get away from that. I think it will be good for both of us not to be playing with each other tomorrow."

Westwood, however, would not agree. A few minutes earlier he had walked into the press room and declared that, to him, this had been like any normal Thursday. "It didn't feel like the last group on a Sunday," he said. "To be bothered about anything on the first tee on a Thursday that concerns anything other than hitting it down the middle of the fairway is irrelevant as far as I'm concerned. I learnt very early in my career to compartmentalise. I think that's why I won so much back in 1998 and '99. To break it down, analyse it, put it in little boxes and then play each box at a time."

It should have been no surprise that their experiences were so conflicting. After all, McIlroy is in just his second full season as a pro while this is the third time that Westwood has come into the season-ending event with a chance of claiming the Harry Vardon Trophy he won in 2000. As McIlroy put it when told of Westwood's apparent nonchalance: "Well, Lee's been around much longer than me."

Yes, the contrast between the two was obvious, even when it came to their perceptions of the conversations they shared. While Westwood said "there was a good bit of chat out there", McIlroy said, "there wasn't much chat, to be honest. There was not as much as there would have been if it was the first round of the Spanish Open or something." Credit to the Ulsterman then, for overcoming the distraction and finishing so strongly. "Looking at the leader board on the ninth snapped me out of it," he said. "I was on level par, had just found a fairway bunker and I looked up and saw [Robert] Allenby on seven under. I was like, 'Hey, I need to start playing a bit here'. It was at that point where I reminded myself that there is a tournament to win here."

Despite his handy position, victory on the Earth course will be anything but straightforward. Allenby's 65 was control personified and the Australian is a proven winner. Alongside Westwood in joint second is the Colombian star of the PGA Tour, Camilo Villegas. Chris Wood is on the same mark.

The Bristolian has his own agenda here as he seeks to hold off Danny Willett and Gareth Maybin in the battle for Rookie of the Year honours. Wood, who finished third in this year's Open at Turnberry after finishing fifth on his debut in the British major a year previously, feared he would not make it here after falling down some steps in Spain a month ago. But he shrugged off the pain to finish with four birdies on the supposedly demanding closing stretch.

"That's the first time I've played 18 holes since the injury," said the 21-year-old. "The ankle started aching on the 15th tee and I thought, 'I'll take one under from here'. But I managed to birdie every one." Like McIlroy, he had turned his day around.

First round: Leading scores

65 R Allenby (Aus).

66 C Villegas (Col), L Westwood (GB), C Wood (GB).

68 T Aiken (SA), P Harrington (Irl), A Scott (Aus), L Wenchong (China), R McIlroy (GB).

69 N Dougherty (GB), J Edfors (Swe), R Goosen (SA), A Quiros (Sp).

70 B Dredge (GB), S Dyson (GB), G Fernandez-Castano (Sp), R Jacquelin (Fr), T Jaidee (Thai), A Noren (Swe), G Ogilvy (Aus), J M Singh (India).

71 G Bourdy (Fr), R Cabrera (Sp), S Garcia (Sp), M Kaymer (Ger), P Lawrie (Ire), G Maybin (GB), R McGowan (GB), L Oosthuizen (SA), I Poulter (GB), H Stenson (Swe), A Wall (GB), O Wilson (GB).


Years since Lee Westwood last topped the European Order of Merit.