A Spaniard and a Scot head the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship leaderboard tonight with Rafa Cabrera-Bello firing a round of 68, taking him to nine-under par on the second day on Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s National Course.
Joining him is Scot Craig Lee, who continued the form of his final first day five holes by posting a round of five-under par today.
Both will be looking nervously over their shoulders as crowd favourite Rory McIlroy roared through a birdie-strewn back nine to finish two shots off the lead and is perfectly positioned to power forward over the next two days.
Cabrera-Bello enjoys Abu Dhabi and never more so than today, sitting top of the pack for the second day running. “I’ve always liked this course. I’ve played well here before and I enjoy and like everything about it. I’m obviously very proud again with my round today.”
The conditions were perfect for spectators, with a swirling breeze taking the edge off the bright Abu Dhabi sun and, on the first day of the UAE weekend, they came out in their thousands.
McIlroy’s grouping with Mickelson and Donaldson attracted the largest following, with substantial galleries also for the Kaymer-Garcia-Manassero group just ahead.
McIlroy started with intent with a birdie on the first. A double bogey on six took him back to one-under to cause consternation among his fans, but McIlroy powered through the rest of the round, making six birdies in the last 11 holes to wow the crowds and put himself right into contention for the Falcon Trophy.
The Northern Irishman was delighted with his play and is clearly enjoying the Abu Dhabi start to his season. “I’ve been working hard on all aspects of my game. I came here excited for the season and I’m in with a chance to win going into the weekend and I’m really happy about that.”
Craig Lee, who has sunk 14 birdies in his two rounds, felt Andrew Whittaker, Troon Golf Abu Dhabi’s Group Director of Agronomy, and his team deserved recognition for creating a tough course that offered those birdie chances. “The greens are so good that you get the ball tracking online and you know it’s going to go in. So I think it’s a compliment to the green-keepers, the condition they got the course into.”
The hero of the day was Briton Danny Willett, who carded a fantastic nine-under 63, just one shot off the course record, to end just behind the leaders at eight-under. His achievement was all the more remarkable given that he had been five over par after ten holes on Day One.
“All of a sudden you can make many birdies when you don’t think there are many out there,” said Willett. “Luckily today kind of took off and carried on all the way around.”
Falcon Trophy holder Jamie Donaldson’s two-under 70 brought him back to one-under, safely making the cut, but he will need something special on Saturday and Sunday to be in with a chance of retaining his title. Phil Mickelson matched Donaldson’s 70 and will also go into the last two days at one-under.
“I’m really glad I made the cut,” said Mickelson, “I have a chance on these next two days, because I kind of keyed in on something, the swing started to feel much better and I really need these two days to get my game sharp to start the year.”
Sergio Garcia, Matteo Manassero and Jeev Milka Singh all finished level par. A four-under 68 will have put the smile back on the Spaniard’s face after a disappointing first day but he still has a lot to do.
There were some unexpected big names that did not make the cut, including Henrik Stenson, the man who set the Tour alight last year. The Swede failed to draw on his stunning form from 2013, finishing the day two-over par to miss his chance of trying to secure his first ever Falcon Trophy.
Also finishing two over par was 2012 winner Robert Rock, while another surprise was Padraig Harrington, the first European to win back-to-back Major Championships, who finished one over par.
Extra support from local crowds for Emirati Ahmed Al Musharrekh helped him improve on his first day’s score and he will be hoping to make a fourth appearance at the Championship next year.
The splendid weather attracted thousands to the Championship Village, with Ladies Day adding a touch of glamour to a day packed full of activities away from the action on the course. Ladies each received a complimentary day pass as well as a beverage on arrival to help enjoy the sun-kissed afternoon.
Fashion specialists also roamed the grounds on the hunt for the ‘Best Dressed Woman’. This year’s winner, Australian Goldie Belcin, will enjoy an all-inclusive trip-of-a-lifetime for two to Bangkok, courtesy of Championship partners The St. Regis Saadiyat Island and Etihad Airways.
Kick-starting the Ladies Day was Scottish professional Catriona Matthew, who provided a ladies golf clinic at Yas Links – arabia’s only true Links course on Yas Island as part of the wider Championship programme.
Ryder Cup Captain Paul McGinley and golfing legend Colin Montgomerie provided top-class, off-course action in the Championship Village when they surprised fans with a light-hearted Q&A session. The two Ryder Cup stars provided commentary on September’s event at Gleneagles, junior golf grassroots programmes and Europe’s most prominent talents, including McIlroy, Stenson and Bjorn.
Keeping the party atmosphere going at the end of the day was award-winning international DJ Greg Stainer, who kept the crowds entertained with a live set of the latest tracks. Based in the UAE, Stainer’s house music played out on the terraces of the Abu Dhabi Golf Club as the sunset on day two of the region’s showpiece tournament.
Even bigger crowds are expected on Saturday, attracted by the thrilling battle of golf developing at the National Course and enticed further by a ‘Splash of Red’ promotion by Championship title sponsor HSBC which gives free entry to anyone wearing an item of red clothing.
The last word of the day went to Craig Lee who is clearly hoping for that cooling breeze again tomorrow. “This weather is perfect. This is nice temperature for me. If it starts to get a little bit warmer, I think my Scottish skin kind of starts to melt so I’m delighted with that!”
Tickets are still available for Saturday and Sunday via the event’s official website – www.abudhabigolfchampionship.com – and Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.ae), at AED50 for a daily pass and AED150 for a season pass. Guests staying at any Abu Dhabi hotel over the Championship period enter free.