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McIlroy leads, ex-FSU star Koepka one back at Dubai

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Rory McIlroy hit wedge into 5 feet for birdie on No. 18 for 2-under 70 Friday to regain the lead in the Dubai Desert Classic.

The chief challenge for the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland came from an American, but it wasn't Tiger Woods.

Former Florida State standout Brooks Koepka, who earned his PGA European Tour card last year by winning three times on the Challenge Tour, made seven birdies against no bogeys for 65 that left him one behind McIlroy.

Woods, meanwhile, hit only four fairways and had to rely on key putts to salvage 73. He was tied for 44th, eight off the lead.

McIlroy was at 11-under 133.

He seemingly was in control at Emirates Golf Club, leading by three after birdie at No. 10. But he drove wildly into the waste area on the par-5 13th and the par-4 16th, both leading to bogeys, before rallying on the 18th.

"It was nice to birdie the last and at least give myself a one-shot lead going into (today)," McIlroy said. "I will just go back and sort of regroup and realize I am still leading the tournament. I was more frustrated on the back nine, as the back nine is where you want to build your score after playing the harder front nine."

Danny Willett of England, who began his week by jumping out of a plane at 13,000 feet, shot 65 and shared third with Damien McGrane of Ireland (70) and Julien Quesne of France (70).

Woods, trying to join Ernie Els as the only three-time winners of the event, opened with birdie on his third hole, but the highlights were few after that. His only other birdie was on the par-3 11th.

Instead of going to the practice range after his round, he conducted a clinic with Mark O'Meara. "I was on so many parts of the golf course that I got to meet so many people, signed so many autographs out there and gave a lot of balls away," Woods joked. "Seriously, I was just hitting it sideways."

Koepka is in his first full season on the European Tour. He came close to winning the Open in October in America before struggling on the back nine. He's roommates in West Palm Beach with another American on tour, Peter Uihlein, who bogeyed his last hole to miss the cut.

Koepka, a two-time ACC player of the year at FSU, turned pro in 2012 but failed to earn his PGA Tour card at qualifying school, so he headed to Europe where he estimates he has played in 21 countries.

"It's fun. I love it," he said. "Traveling the world at 23 isn't too bad of a gig. And really one of the places I wanted to go to is Dubai. It was nice to get over here and see what it's all about."

PGA: Bubba Watson followed his opening-round 64 with 66 to reach 12-under 130, tied atop the Phoenix Open leaderboard in Scottsdale with Australia's Matt Jones, who shot his second straight 65.

"It's right where I want to be going into the weekend," Watson said.

Phil Mickelson, a week after withdrawing from Torrey Pines because of back pain, shot 4-under 67 and trailed by eight.

"I'm not totally out of it," said Mickelson, the defending champion and a former Arizona State star. "Obviously, heading into the weekend, I'd like to be closer, but as we have seen in the past, there is that 8-, 9-, 10-, in some cases 11-under par round out there."

Harris English and Greg Chalmers shot 67 to reach 10 under, and Pat Perez, Kevin Stadler and Hideki Matsuyama were 9 under. Matsuyama had a 67, and Perez and Stadler shot 68.

McIlroy leads, ex-FSU star Koepka one back at Dubai 01/31/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 31, 2014 11:02pm]
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