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Rory confident leading from front
Rory McIlroy still expects to win the Omega Dubai Desert Classic for the second time, despite his frustration at failing to build a commanding halfway lead on Friday.
McIlroy looked back to his brilliant best as he posted a sparkling opening 63, the former world number one carding seven birdies and an eagle at Emirates Golf Club, the scene of his first European Tour title in 2009.
And although he struggled to a more pedestrian 70 on Friday, the 24-year-old's halfway total of 11 under par kept him on top of the leaderboard, one shot ahead of American Brooks Koepka, whose flawless 65 equalled the lowest score of the day.
England's Danny Willett also shot 65 to share third place on eight under alongside Ireland's Damien McGrane and France's Julien Quesne, with European number one Henrik Stenson and defending champion Stephen Gallacher among seven players another shot back after a 67.
World number one Tiger Woods, playing alongside McIlroy, could only manage a 73 to make the cut with just one shot to spare on three under.
McIlroy dropped his first shot of the tournament on his opening hole on Friday and also hit bad drives at the next two holes, although he did birdie the par-five third and, after picking up further shots at the fifth and seventh, admitted he expected to pull away from the field.
"I thought so, yes," McIlroy told Sky Sports. "Making a few birdies on the front nine and turning two under par was a good effort, especially as the wind started to get up.
"I birdied 10, played 11 and 12 okay but then missed that little one (a par putt from inside two feet) on 13, had a chance on 15 and didn't convert and made bogey on 16, but it was nice to birdie the last and at least give myself a one-shot lead going into tomorrow.
"I will just go back tonight and regroup and realise that I am still leading the tournament. I hit a couple of loose drives which I haven't done the last couple of weeks but I still feel like I'm playing well enough to go and win the tournament."
Asked if he expected to claim his sixth European Tour title on Sunday, McIlroy added: "I do. I am leading the tournament, I've been in this position before and went on to win.
"I have led from the front quite well in tournaments that I have won. I feel like I am still playing well, I know the course as well as anyone else and I expect to go out there and shoot two good scores over the weekend and hopefully lift the trophy."
Stenson could well be McIlroy's biggest challenger after the Swede continued his excellent recovery from being three over par after five holes on Thursday.
"I think there is still a little way to go but today was the best I have putted for a long, long time," said Stenson, who became the first man to win the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai in the same season in 2013.
"I was threatening on every putt and kept the score together with no bogeys, which is always a good sign."
Willett began the week in unusual fashion with a charity skydive, but joked that the terrifying experience might have put golf's worries firmly into perspective.
"It was a different way to start the week, but if you are standing on the first tee trying to hit a drive onto the fairway it seems a little less nerve-racking than jumping out of a plane at 13,000ft, so it might have prepared me quite well," the 26-year-old from Sheffield said.
"As soon as you jump out you think 'What are we doing?', but after that you level out and start to feel like you are just floating down and it's unbelievable."
Speaking about his round of eight birdies and one bogey, which started at 07.15 local time, Willett added on European Tour Radio: "A half-four alarm is never great but it's a great time to play golf in the desert.
"The back nine is the scoreable nine and I was really, really clinical, didn't miss a green, hit a couple of par fives in two and it was a real easy six under. The front nine gets a little trickier with the breeze and the doglegs but all in all it's two good days' work."
Koepka won "battlefield promotion" to the European Tour last season by winning three times on the Challenge Tour, his last one coming in Scotland before a quick dash to Sunningdale the next day to qualify for the Open Championship.
"I've never played with Rory, so it's going to be fun," said the 23-year-old, who shares a house in Florida with fellow player Peter Uihlein. "I know him a little bit from seeing him around, so hopefully I'll be able to play as well as I did today.
"I putted really well today. Yesterday I didn't putt very well, but today my putter came through for me. I've been striking the ball really well, and I also chipped well today. So everything's going well, I can't complain."
Woods maintained his sense of humour despite his poor round, joking at a junior golf clinic afterwards: "I was on so many parts of the golf course today that I got to meet so many people, signed so many autographs out there and gave a lot of balls away.
"But seriously, I was just hitting it sideways."
He added in quotes reported on ESPN.com: "I didn't hit it very good today. Ironically enough, I felt great with the putter, but feeling great with the putter from 40, 50 feet is not exactly the best thing.
"I just didn't hit it close enough. Didn't hit it well. Struggled with it and had a bad warm-up, as well. Just one of those days."