Ernie Els proved that his brilliant opening-round was not a fluke when he followed it up with an even better five-under par 67 round on Friday at the Dubai Desert Classic.
At the Emirates Golf Club, Els’ bogey-free effort saw him hold the clubhouse lead for most part of the second round, before Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello surpassed him late in the day by making a 12-feet birdie putt on his final hole.
Cabrera-Bello, the 2012 Desert Classic champion, carried on his superb form from Doha last week, where he finished tied second, making just one bogey in a second successive round of 67.
At 10-under par, the 85th ranked Spaniard led Els (67), another South African Trevor Fisher Jnr (68) and England’s Danny Willett (65).
Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen, who finished tied second along with Cabrera-Bello to Branden Grace in Doha, shot the best round of the day - an eight-under par 64 - to move to tied fifth place at 136 alongside England’s Andy Sullivan (66) and Chris Wood (68) and Netherland’s Joost Luiten (67).
Defending champion Rory McIlroy, the highest ranked player in the field at number two, kept himself in contention with an even-par 72, which looked unlikely at one stage when he was four-over for the round after 11 holes. But McIlroy made four birdies after that, including three in last three holes, to get into the weekend six shots behind the leader.
The cut was applied at one-under par 143, and several star players failed to advance. Prominent among those who missed the cut were world number 18 Louis Oosthuizen (147), former world number ones Lee Westwood (145) and Martin Kaymer (146), former US Open champion Graeme McDowell (145), former Masters champion Trevor Immelman (146) and world number 29 Thongchai Jaidee (144).
Despite Cabrera-Bello’s finish, Els, a three-time Dubai Desert Classic champion, was the toast of the tournament.
The four-time major champion changed his putting grip to left-hand low during the South African Open earlier this year, and is already feeling the difference. On Friday, he completed his round in 28 putts that included a par putt from 25 feet on the 14th hole.
“After the first week of the year, that was probably the low point of the year, because from 18 inches, I was dodgy,” said Els of his yips issues which he blamed on an ‘overactive’ right hand.
“To make the changes that I have made, drastic changes in the putting setup, the grip and so forth, and now feeling very comfortable and confident, is an about turn, isn’t it? I was really nowhere and now I feel like I’ve got some game.”
Cabrera-Bello, who made a solitary bogey on the tough sixth hole after hitting his tee shot into thick rough, said he owed the score to his good putting.
“It was hard out there with the wind. I wasn’t as sharp today with the long game, but still not bad. Giving myself lots of birdie chances, but did not hit it so close, but the putter was really hot today and that made up for it,” said the Spaniard.
McIlroy was just happy to get back into the tournament and was hoping a fast start in Saturday’s third round would put him back in contention.
“I didn’t have my best stuff with me and struggled at the start of the round and around the middle of the round. I needed something, first and foremost, to be here for the weekend. Then birdieing the last three holes definitely gives me a little bit of momentum going into the weekend,” said the world number two, who could slip back to number three behind Jason Day if he finishes outside the top-eight.
“I felt like I played some decent golf out there. I missed a few short putts. Just wasn’t really committing to the lines I was picking. There were a couple of tentative putts, a couple of loose shots, but overall a decent finish. If I can get off to a decent start tomorrow, you never know.”
Leading Round II scores
134: Rafael Cabrera-Bello (ESP) 67-67
135: Danny Willett (ENG) 70-65, Ernie Els (RSA) 68-67, Trevor Fisher Jnr (RSA) 67-68
136: Thorbjorn Olesen (DEN) 72-64, Joost Luiten (NED) 69-67, Chris Wood (ENG) 68-68, Andy Sullivan (ENG) 70-66
137: Henrik Stenson (SWE) 69-68, Alvaro Quiros (ESP) 68-69, Brett Rumford (AUS) 67-70
138: Hadyn Porteus (RSA) 72-66, Byeong-hun An (KOR) 71-67, Johan Carlsson (SWE) 71-67, Gary Stal (FRA) 70-68, Graeme Storm (ENG) 68-70, Richard Bland (ENG) 69-69
139: Scott Hend (AUS) 71-68, Bryson DeChambeau (Am, USA) 70-69, Nathan Holman (AUS) 69-70, James Morrison (ENG) 69-70, Bernd Wiesberger (AUT) 68-71
140: Lee Slattery (ENG) 73-67, Kiradech Aphibarnrat (THA) 70-70, Mikko Ilonen (FIN) 70-70, Wade Ormsby (AUS) 71-69, Alexander Levy (FRA) 71-69, Alejandro Canizares (ESP) 71-69, Soren Kjeldsen (DEN) 70-70, Bradley Dredge (WAL) 70-70, Tyrrell Hatton (ENG) 70-70, Oliver Fisher (ENG) 69-71, Ben Evans (ENG) 69-71, Scott Jamieson (SCO) 69-71, Rory McIlroy (NIR) 68-72, Peter Hanson (SWE) 67-73
141: Pablo Larrazabal (ESP) 72-69, Lucas Bjerregaard (DEN) 72-69, Jorge Campillo (ESP) 72-69, Roope Kakko (FIN) 72-69, David Howell (ENG) 71-70, Gregory Havret (FRA) 71-70, Renato Paratore (ITA) 70-71, Matteo Manassero (ITA) 69-72, Ross Fisher (ENG) 70-71, James Allan (Am, ENG) 69-72, David Lipsky (USA) 68-73, Alex Noren (SWE) 66-75.
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