• Abu Dhabi Championship

'Beautiful' McIlroy storms into contention

ESPN staff
January 17, 2014
Mickelson described McIlroy's back-nine as "beautiful" © Getty Images

Abu Dhabi Championship leaderboard

Rory McIlroy carded a 5-under par 67 in the second round of the Abu Dhabi Championship to put himself well in contention going into the weekend.

McIlroy, 24, rolled home two birdies going out, but a double-bogey at six saw the Northern Irishman reach the turn level par for the day and 2-under overall.

But the two-time major champion shifted through the gears in the back-nine, and came home in 31 thanks to birdies at 10, 13, 14, 17 and 18.

And it left playing partner Phil Mickelson scrambling for superlatives at McIlroy's form.

"The back nine was really impressive," Mickelson, who scraped inside the cut line thanks to a 2-under 70, said.

"It was a beautiful nine holes of golf. He is really striking the ball well and his game looks really sharp. His driving was impeccable."

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How different the story is from this time last year, when McIlroy - fresh from announcing a $250 million switch to join Tiger Woods in using Nike clubs - missed the cut with consecutive rounds of 75.

"Coming off the last green last year I was deflated to say the least," McIlroy said.

And it was Mickelson's comments on his driving that will please McIlroy the most.

"Standing there 30 yards ahead of everyone else is nice," he added. "When you are confident with the driver it takes a lot of pressure off your game.

"I got a few putts to drop on the back nine which was nice and I feel like I have a great chance of winning. It would be nice to win your first start of the season rather than your last start. It's exactly what I wanted. It's a great way to test your game under pressure. With a strong start to the year you can really get some momentum."

McIlroy will begin the weekend two shots off leaders Craig Lee and Rafael Cabrera-Bello.

Scot Lee set the clubhouse target of 9-under par by adding a 67 to his opening-day 68 - and he was joined by overnight leader Cabrera-Bello - who had reached 10-under par with a birdie at the eighth - his 17th - before a bogey at the last dropped the Spaniard back into a tie for the lead.

England's Danny Willett carded the round of the day with a 9-under 63 that included seven birdies and an eagle at the par-5 eighth.

Willett's exceptional round saw him move up to third place, one clear of McIlroy, Ricardo Gonzalez and Thomas Bjorn.

Sergio Garcia carded a 4-under 68 to just make it just inside the cutline - having earlier been cleared of a rule breach.

Those headed home early include reigning FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai champion Henrik Stenson and two-time major champion Padraig Harrington.

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