Rory McIlroy avoids prickly Patrick Reed pairing for now in bid to beat new year jinx

Rory McIlroy - David Cannon/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy - David Cannon/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy has, for the third round at least, avoided a pairing that “Teegate” rival Patrick Reed warned would be “a circus”, and is free to concentrate on his first-start-of-the-year curse instead.

In his 14 calendar-opening events so far in his garlanded career the world No1 has never won, despite finishing in the top five a remarkable 12 times and second on four occasions. Will the Dubai Desert Classic, the scene of his maiden victory as a pro, at last witness McIlroy putting this anomaly to rest?

On eight-under, McIlroy, 33, is only two back and clearly capable of so much better in the final two rounds of this weather-affected Rolex Series event. When he signed for a two-under 70 on Saturday, his focus was solely on getting to the range and not on the maths with which seemingly everyone else here at the Emirates Golf Club was obsessed.

With Reed on the same mark after his own 70, it appeared highly likely that the duo would be playing together on Sunday and after the build-up, when the pair feuded through the media, that was a delicious prospect indeed.

Alas, McIlroy is in the group behind Reed and any ghouls looking for extreme awkwardness on the first tee will have to make do with Henrk Stenson playing with Luke Donald, the Englishman who replaced him six months ago as Europe’s Ryder Cup captain after the Swede was stripped of the role for breaking his contract by jumping ship to LIV Golf in a £40 million deal.

However, as Telegraph Sport revealed last week, Stenson and Donald have talked since the controversy, so do not expect any fireworks on that front. Instead, the bangs, fizzes and whistles should be provided by the golf itself on a scoreboard featuring 29 players within four shots of the lead.

LIV, the Saudi-funded circuit, has a healthy presence – if “healthy” is the appropriate adjective – with Southampton veteran Richard Bland (67) sharing the advantage alongside Belgian Thomas Pieters (67) and American amateur Michael Thorbjornsen (64) and five other rebels in this leading pack, including Ian Poulter (71), who is also on eight-under.

With the sun blessedly blazing again after the desert downpours which blighted the opening few days, the tension could heat up.

What McIlroy would give to start off 2023 with a statement. However the Northern Irishman recognises that, having hit only two fairways all day, his work is cut out unless he can find a quick fix. He cut a disconsolate figure following a round containing one eagle, one birdie and one bogey.

“I concentrate on myself when I’m out there and right now I need to sort my game out,” McIlroy said, dismissing the Reed questions. “I need to straighten up my tee shots and feel like I have a chance going into the next two days. I didn’t pick up a club for four weeks over Christmas and this is the inevitable rust. I’m not hitting it well, but I’m scoring well, I’m playing ‘golf’ well and managing my game well, so that’s a consolation.”

When McIlroy eventually planted himself on the range, he was only five bays down from Reed who wore a similar expression. “Case of a bout of the lip-outs today,” Reed said. “I burnt the edges of so many holes it was frustrating. My ball-striking was OK but I feel I just left too many out there. I’m only one-under par for the par fives for two rounds and that kills you around here. But I’m right there and it’s very achievable.”

And if it does end up in McIlroy-Reed head-to-head in a golfing Monday for the ages? “We are just two golfers going out with the goal of trying to win a golf tournament,” Reed said. “Of course, it’d be overblown, might be a bit of a circus for the media, but it’d be fine.

“We’ve had some good tussles in the past. We’ve had the [2016 singles match] Ryder Cup, the final round of Augusta [in the 2018 Masters] and a few others when Rory got the better of me. We seem to bring the best out of each other and if it ends up happening, hopefully we can put on a good show.”