DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland and Tommy Fleetwood were in a group of marquee players moving into contention at the season-ending World Tour Championship on Friday.
Rory McIlroy wasn’t among them.
While the No. 2-ranked McIlroy was, in his words, “stuck in neutral” on his way to shooting an even-par 72 in the second round, Rahm, Hovland and Fleetwood all had 66s on the Earth Course to be in a good position heading into the weekend.
Nicolai Hojgaard, a 22-year-old Dane boosted by his recent Ryder Cup experience, had a back nine of 30 containing four birdies and an eagle to shoot 66 and lead on 11-under par, two shots clear of a five-man group including Hovland and Fleetwood.
Rahm, ranked No. 3, was five shots back and happy with his game, though frustrated by a three-putting from 20 feet for bogey at his last hole — No. 9.
McIlroy was languishing on 1 under for the tournament, 10 back and tied for 34th place in a curtailed field of 50 for the last event of the European tour’s 2023 season.
“There is a low one out there,” said McIlroy, who has already clinched the Race to Dubai title and was crowned Europe’s No. 1 player for a fifth time. “And I’m going to need one to get myself back in the tournament.”
Hojgaard, who was in a share of the lead after the first round, wasn’t really a factor early in round two after bogeys at Nos. 3 and 4. He rebounded with birdies at two of the next three holes and finished birdie-par-birdie-eagle, hitting his second shot at the par-5 18th to 6 feet.
Hojgaard, one of the rising stars of European golf and a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup, is building on a second-place finish at the Nedbank Golf Challenge last week.
“It’s a little bit like last week as well — had a slow start in every round, basically. And then I just know in every round there’s going to be a run of birdies at some point with where my game is at. So it’s about staying patient,” the 70th-ranked Hojgaard said.
“I trust my game at the moment. It’s been a little bit shaky at times this year, but I feel like we’re on track at the moment.”
The No. 4-ranked Hovland won the season-ending Tour Championship on the PGA Tour in August, was one of Europe’s best players at the Ryder Cup and has collected approaching $35 million in on-course earnings in the 2023 season.
A special year could yet include a winner’s check of $3 million in Dubai, where he said he was playing “stress-free golf” after just one bogey on Friday sandwiched between seven birdies including four in his last seven holes.
“I’m just staying really patient and not making a mistake,” Hovland said, “and it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to.”
Fleetwood was looking at home at Jumeirah Golf Estates and that’s no surprise — he has an academy at the course and lives in Dubai.
This marks his final chance of a victory in the 2023 season and the highlight of his round containing seven birdies was a 30-foot birdie putt at the par-3 13th.
“No matter where you are in your career it’s great to be here and have a chance to win this tournament and it’s close to my heart now,” the 15th-ranked Fleetwood said.
Rahm started on No. 10, birdied four of his first seven holes, then nearly holed his approach at No. 18 for an albatross, settling instead for an eagle from 2 feet.
More birdies at Nos. 2 and 3 left him just two shots off the lead at that stage, but he parred the next five holes before a bogey at the long par-4 ninth despite a fairway-splitting drive and a 7-iron to the heart of the green.
“To three-putt there leaves a bit of a sour taste,” said Rahm, the defending champion.
McIlroy birdied Nos. 2, 6 and 7 and hit eight greens in regulation in the front nine, but played the final 11 holes in 2 over.
“I was trying to make some birdies on the back nine to get something going,” he said, “and I couldn’t.”
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