Dan Bradbury holding off Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm at DP World Tour Championship
Birdies at three, five, seven and nine took the 24-year-old into a share of first place in the final event of the 2023 season with European superstars like Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm among those trailing in his wake.
Whether it was thoughts of the $3m first prize that entered his head at that stage or not, but gravity eventually kicked in and Bradbury double-bogeyed the 11th and dropped another shot on the 12th before rallying with a birdie on 18 to sign for an opening round 70.
Ten players passed him – playing partner Julien Guerrier and his fellow Frenchman Matthieu Pavon joining Denmark’s Ryder Cup star Nicolai Hojgaard in setting the pace at five under par – but it was nevertheless a strong start to the season finale for a young Yorkshireman who has made a habit of not being over-awed by occasions in his rookie season.
McIlroy is one shot back of Bradbury after an eventful 71 that culminated in a remarkable par save on the par-five 18th.
His drive on the 650-yard par five bounced off the rocks surrounding a creek which runs the length of the hole and landed in the chip bark off the fairway, from where he pulled his second shot into the creek, only to see it bounce out and on to a bridge.
“I was hoping that my tee shot was going to miss the hazard right but I didn’t exactly think that it would do what it did,” said McIlroy, who conceded he was rusty playing his first tournament since a victorious Ryder Cup appearance six weeks ago.
“And the second shot from the mulch, it just sort of started left on me, and yeah got another stroke of luck by coming back over the bridge.
“I was a bit in two minds about whether to go left and cut it or go right. I felt with the longer club there was a chance of clipping the bridge on the way through. So I took a wedge and just tried to hit it as hard as I could and ended up making a good five.
“The up and down on 17 [from a bunker] and the par on 18 was actually a pretty nice way to end the day.”
As ever with McIlroy, it wasn’t just what happened on the course that was up for discussion after his round.
Earlier this week he resigned from the PGA Tour’s Policy Board having been a vocal advocate against the LIV Golf encroachment on golf’s status quo.
He explained: “I just think I’ve got a lot going on in my life between my golf game, my family and my growing investment portfolio, my involvement in TGL [an indoor golf league], and I just felt like something had to give.
“I just didn’t feel like I could commit the time and the energy into doing that. I don’t mind being busy, but I just like being busy doing my own stuff.
“Something had to give and there’s guys that are on that board that are spending a lot more time and a lot more energy on it than I am. It’s in good hands and I felt like it was the right time to step off.”
Rahm, chasing a fourth victory at the Earth Course at Jumeriah Golf Estates is another shot back on level par after bogeying the last two holes.
It is the first time the Spaniard has not broken par at the Earth Course in 17 competitive rounds.
One shot better than Rahm and alongside McIlroy is Northallerton’s Dan Brown who had five bogeys but six birdies in his round of 71.
The other Yorkshireman in the field and a two-time former champion in Dubai, Matt Fitzpatrick, did not fare as well, opening the week with a 74 that looked like being a lot worse when he began with five dropped shots in the first five holes.
Hojgaard, who was level par at the turn before making five birdies in the next six holes, admitted he had been inspired by being part of Luke Donald’s victorious side in Rome.
“It was huge,” the 22-year-old said.
“Spending time with the best players in the world, fighting for a common goal was amazing, and just being around those guys, seeing what they do, what do I do different, what do I need to work on.
“It gave me a lot of confidence going into the last end of the season here. You want to play with those guys but you also want to beat them.”
Fellow Ryder Cup stars Viktor Hovland, Tommy Fleetwood and Robert MacIntyre were part of an eight-strong group on three under par with Tyrell Hatton level with Bradbury on two under and going out with his fellow Englishman in the second round in what is a two-tee start due to a bad weather forecast.
Hovland, who won the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup play-offs, said: “I just didn't make any putts on the front nine until the ninth hole, and then I made another one on 10 and another one on 12. The bogey on 16 and 17 hurt a little bit but it was nice to get the one back on 18.”