By Matt Smith
DUBAI (Reuters) – Rory McIlroy chipped in from the bunker on the final hole of his first round of the DP World Tour Championship on Thursday to be within two strokes of the lead and level with Danny Willett, his main rival to be Europe’s top player of 2015.
Four-time major winner McIlroy and Willett are two of eight players to card a four-under 68 on Dubai’s earth course, two strokes behind the leading quartet of Germany’s Martin Kaymer, Australia’s Marcus Fraser and English duo Ian Poulter and Andy Sullivan.
McIlroy, 26, was fortunate to end the day on the fringes of the leaderboard after twice finding bunkers on the 18th before holing from the sand to pick up an unlikely birdie.
“It’s one of those ones where all I needed to do was splash it out, land it on the top of the hill and have it trundle on down to the hole,” the world number three told reporters.
“I knew I could get quite close without having to really do much.”
Aside from vying for a share of the event’s $8 million prize money, the top 15 players in the so-called Race to Dubai — the revamped Order of Merit — will share a further $5 million.
Going into the Dubai tournament, McIlroy was narrowly ahead of Willett, while five other players also had a mathematical chance of being the season’s best.
The standings meant Willett, 28, and McIlroy were last to play, arriving at the first tee under a blistering midday sun and without any breeze to provide some respite.
Willett’s turquoise shirt was drenched in sweat as he and McIlroy amiably chatted before play began.
The Northern Irishman missed a difficult downhill birdie putt from 20 feet on the first green, rolling the ball wide.
He made immediate amends, picking up a shot with a nine-foot putt on the second to move to one-under despite struggling to find the fairway or green on the approach.
Willett birdied five and seven, in between McIlroy picking up another shot on six as both reached the turn two-under.
“Ball-striking tee-to-green for the most part has been very good all year and it’s been the putter that held me back,” said McIlroy. “But I felt I putted well today so that bodes well for the next three days.”
On the back nine, McIlroy bogeyed 10, then birdied 11 and 12, while Willett picked up shots at 11, 14 and 18 and bogeyed 13.
“In between those birdies and the birdie at the last, there was a bit of ugly golf in there,” added McIlroy. “I got enough practice out of the bunkers on the back nine.”
(Reporting by Matt Smith; editing by Toby Davis)