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Ian Poulter maintains lead at Australian Masters

Poulter holds halfway advantage but Donald still dangerous at Australian Masters

A three-under par round of 68 was enough for Ian Poulter to maintain his lead at the midway point of the JBWere Australian Masters in Melbourne, but a couple of big names are still in touch.

Poulter”s steady round included birdies at all three par-fives, and just the one bogey, as he moved on to nine-under to hold two-stroke advantage heading into the weekend.

Australian Matthew Giles (68) is alone in second place at seven-under, while countryman Ashley Hall is outright third at minus six after a 70.

In control: Ian Poulter takes a two-shot lead into the third round in Melbourne

In control: Ian Poulter takes a two-shot lead into the third round in Melbourne

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But there are a host of big names within touch, including world No 1 Luke Donald and local hopeful Geoff Ogilvy.

Donald endured an up-and-down day that could have been considerably better, but ended up signing for a 70 to be among a host of players tied for 14th at three-under.

The Englishman got to four-under early in his round when he made back-to-back birdies at two of the most difficult holes on the course – the par-four sixth and short par-three seventh – but he found trouble at the eighth and gave back both shots immediately.

Despite his inconsistent round, Donald still thinks he remains a threat.

“I hit a lot of good shots today but I”ve been struggling on the greens,” he said. “I”m finding it hard to see the line and missing my fair share of chances for birdie. Hopefully I”m saving them all for the weekend.

“I”m still in a decent position, I just need to get that putter going and get on a roll.”

Hanging in: Luke Donald is six behind Poulter after struggling with his putter

Hanging in: Luke Donald is six behind Poulter after struggling with his putter

Ogilvy looked flat early in his round before springing to life at the par-five ninth with a chip in for eagle from the back of the green.

Four more birdies – along with one dropped shot – followed on the back nine for the Victorian as he shot 66 and finished the day tied with Brendan Jones, Nathan Green, Brent McCullough, Kieran Pratt and Peter Lonard at five-under.

It looked like Lonard was going to finish higher up the leaderboard when he birdied his eighth and ninth holes, the 17th and 18th, to move into a share of the lead at seven-under, but the 44-year-old dropped three shots in a row on his back nine to finish with a 70.

Route 66: Geoff Ogilvy shot a six-under second round to stay in contention

Route 66: Geoff Ogilvy shot a six-under second round to stay in contention

Italian Matteo Manassero fared much better on the second day, with the 18-year-old posting a round of 67 to follow his disastrous 76 on Thursday, while playing partner Robert Allenby carded 17 pars and one birdie to finish with a 70.

The duo finished the day in joint 47th position at one-over, one shot ahead of the cut that was made at plus two.

Notable players that missed the cut included veteran Australians Peter O”Malley and Paul Gow, plus New Zealander Michael Campbell and American Jeff Maggert.

Rory McIlroy makes perfect start at Dubai World Championship

McIlroy makes perfect start as world No 1 Donald pays the price in Dubai

Anyone watching Rory McIlroy’s breathtaking exhibition over the back nine at the Dubai World Championship on Thursday could easily have drawn the conclusion that he is the most talented golfer around.

Poor Luke Donald. One day after paying the Northern Irishman that ultimate compliment, he must have beenhoping not to witness quite such an exquisite illustration of what he was talking about.

In the hunt: Rory McIlroy is two shots off the lead at the Earth Course in Dubai

In the hunt: Rory McIlroy is two shots off the lead at the Earth Course in Dubai

Dubai World Championship

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As for all neutrals and fans of McIlroy, this was the opening day they craved, one that promises to turn the Race to Dubai into a sprint to the 18th green on Sunday.

Yet who could have predicted this at the halfway stage yesterday Donald, rock-solid as he has been all season, had gone to the turn in 33 strokes, while McIlroy had paid for a couple of mental mistakes and taken three shots more.

Remember, McIlroy has to win this event and hope the Englishman finishes worse than ninth to snatch the Order of Merit from him at the last gasp. Never mind the Earth Course. After all the anticipation leading up to the first tee shots, it was looking like the venue ought to be renamed the Down to Earth course.

Until tomorrow: McIlroy shakes hands with Luke Donald after round one in Dubai

Until tomorrow: McIlroy shakes hands with Luke Donald after round one in Dubai

Fortunately, McIlroy doesn’t do boring, does he Over nine scintillating holes, the mistakes disappearedand so did no fewer than six birdie putts. If you added up the length of those strokes he holed, they came to — if you can believe this — 137 feet. And that’s supposed to be the weakest part of his game.

Donald admitted afterwards he had allowed himself to get caught up into thinking that it was a head-to-head against McIlroy, and duly paid the price. Two successive drives on the 14th and 15th holes were so wild he had to declare both unplayable. When did that last happen — when he was about nine ‘I couldn’t tell you, I try to block out things like that,’ he said, with a rueful grin.

All told, he needed no fewer than nine shots more over that back nine than his only rival for the Race to Dubai and ended up with a 72 to McIlroy’s 66. McIlroy lies third behind the Scot Paul Lawrie, who shot 65, while the Swede Peter Hanson leads following a wonderful 64.

Level par: Donald was a bit wayward off the tee during his round of 72

Level par: Donald was a bit wayward off the tee during his round of 72

Donald is in the middle of the chasing pack, and it might suit him that he will not be playing with McIlroy again today.

‘It was definitely a mixture of two halves for me, with some very loose shots on the back nine,’ said Donald. ‘The good thing is I’ve got plentyof time to repair the damage. It’s important I get back to taking careof my own business over the next three days.’

As for the buoyant McIlroy, he was only too happy to revel in his psychological advantage at this early stage. He couldn’t hide the glint in his eye as he reflected: ‘This was the perfect start for me. To shoot a great score like that really sets me up nicely for the next three days.

‘There were a couple of silly mistakes on the front nine but the back nine was pretty much flawless.’

Nicely done: Sweden

Nicely done: Sweden”s Peter Hanson is out in front on his own after a 64

McIlroy is currently enjoying the most consistent form of his professional career. Since recovering from injuring his hand at the US PGA Championship in August he hasn’t finished outside the top four in any event and has won twice. ‘I do feel every time I tee it up right nowI’ve got a good chance of shooting a good score,’ he said.

‘Everything seems sort of stress-free right now.’

What made McIlroy’s score all the more remarkable is that he lost a ballon the second hole and ran up an ugly seven — but how he made amends.
McIlroy’s girlfriend, world No 1 tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, is due in town today for the potentially thrilling denouement.

As she might put it, following a wonderful opening day: advantage, McIlroy.

Rory McIlroy two off lead at Dubai World Championship

McIlroy in the mix at Dubai World Championship as money leader Donald makes slow start

The European Tour title race looks set to go right to the wire after Rory McIlroy produced a fabulous nine-hole stretch, just as Luke Donald was losing his way.

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In the hunt: Rory McIlroy is two shots off the lead at the Earth Course in Dubai

Dubai World Championship

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But England”s world No 1, paired with McIlroy, fell back to joint 26th when three successive bogeys from the 14th left him with a level-par 72.

The first two dropped shots came when he drove into bushes and he had to take penalty drops, the third when he could not recover from finding a fairway bunker off the next tee.

“I felt very much in control and then I lost it,” Donald said as a race he seemed a near-certainty to win a month ago hotted up even more.

He has only to think back two months, however, to realise there is still a long way to go.

Until tomorrow: McIlroy shakes hands with Luke Donald after round one in Dubai

Until tomorrow: McIlroy shakes hands with Luke Donald after round one in Dubai

Donald became the first European to capture the PGA Tour money list title in America when he played the last nine holes of the final event in 30 to overtake Webb Simpson.

He also recalled his last trip to the Earth course 13 months ago.

“This is two shots better than the first round last year and I still finished ninth,” he added. “You”ve got to find the positives.”

However, McIlroy won the Hong Kong Open last Sunday with a closing 65 and feeling run down is not affecting his golf yet.

“To be honest, I”m sort of using it to my advantage in a way,” Northern Ireland”s US Open champion said.

Level par: Donald was a bit wayward off the tee during his round of 72

Level par: Donald was a bit wayward off the tee during his round of 72

“It”s sort of taken the pressure off me. I”m not 100 per cent and if it doesn”t happen it doesn”t happen and there”s nothing I can do about it.

“You can just go about your game and try and play as well as you can.

“I definitely don”t feel invincible, but I feel like every time I tee it up I”ve got a good chance of shooting a good score.

“I don”t think I”ve finished outside the top four since the US PGA (eight events ago) and everything seems sort of stress-free.

“It”s not going to last forever, I”m sure. I”m sure there”s going to be a point where I struggle, but right now it”s nice to have that feeling.”

Not even losing a ball with his fifth shot of the day and taking a double bogey bothered McIlroy as he birdied two of the next three.

But it was after the turn when the fireworks really began.

Nicely done: Sweden

Nicely done: Sweden”s Peter Hanson is out in front on his own after a 64

He holed from 12 feet on 10, 25 feet on 13, 12 feet at the next, 40 feet on 16 and from 18 and 20 feet on the final two greens.

He still reckons Donald has a better short game than him, but it was Donald who came into the event saying that McIlroy had the most talent of anyone he had ever played with.

That sparked some heated debate given that Tiger Woods has won 14 majors and 93 titles as a pro, and Donald”s eve-of-tournament preparations included going on his Twitter site to praise Woods.

“A few people aren”t understanding what I meant,” he said. “The word talent and Rory to me means a free-flowing swing who makes everything look so easy.

Flawless: Scotland

Flawless: Scotland”s Paul Lawrie had no dropped shots in his round of 65

“Tiger has always been the best at getting the ball in the hole when it mattered the most. That”s not just talent, that”s something else too.

“Talent can only take you so far, you need the right attitude (mindset) and application to perform at the highest level.

“I”d never try to disrespect Tiger in any way. He is still the greatest player I have played with.”

McIlroy, no stranger to Twitter controversies himself, was asked for his opinion on the matter.

“It”s one thing to have talent, but another to actually have the capability of turning that talent into something productive,” he said.

On a hat-trick: Spaniard Sergio Garcia is aiming for a third straight victory

On a hat-trick: Spaniard Sergio Garcia is aiming for a third straight victory

“I think what Luke was saying was maybe golf comes as easy to me as it does Tiger – I”ll never know – but Tiger”s won 90-whatever tournaments and 14 majors and that”s definitely more of a talent than (my) five wins.

“There”s different type of talent. I think what he said was maybe taken a little bit out of context.”

Meanwhile, it was Hanson who actually played the best golf of the day.

He also came home in 30 to equal the course record set by Lee Westwood in winning the 2009 title and matched by Ross Fisher last year.

Without a victory since making his Ryder Cup debut 15 months ago, he leads by a stroke from 1999 Open champion Paul Lawrie, whose win in Spain in March was his first success for nine years.

Sergio Garcia is fourth after a 67 and so still has hopes of a third successive Tour victory.