With heavy rain forcing a Monday finish Bland, who lost in a play-off last year, added a second straight five-under-par 67 to top the midway leaderboard with Belgium’s Thomas Pieters (67) and American amateur Michael Thorbjornsen (64).
Sweden’s Marcus Kinhult (65), Scotland’s Connor Syme (67) and Spain’s Adri Arnaus (68) were tied for fourth at nine-under par on a day when the sun was finally shining.
But the 60-odd millimetres of rain dumped over the past few days had made the conditions soft and the preferred lies rules were still in play, abetting the low scores.
World number one McIlroy was not best pleased with his round of two-under-par 70.
He moved to eight-under par to be tied for seventh, but headed straight to the driving range to sort out an erring driver.
The round was helped by an eagle on the 13th hole, where he drained a putt from 34 feet. Otherwise, he just had one birdie and a bogey on an easy scoring day.
“Just a little rusty. Yeah, need to go do a little work,” he said.
“I think it’s nice when you’re not feeling on your game you have a short game to sort of bail you out, and I think that’s the reason why I’m still not too far away from the lead.”
Bland out to make amends
Bland, who lost out 12 months ago to Viktor Hovland, made just one bogey in the 36 holes and was delighted with his own form.
“The conditions were a lot easier. The ball wasn’t going too far this morning. So that was kind of one of the things you just had to be wary of,” he said.
“It’s just nice to play with the sun on your back which we’re used to in Dubai,” added the winner of the British Masters in 2021.
On his allegiance with LIV Golf, and the acrimony it has generated with players and officials resorting to verbal attacks, Bland said he just wanted to keep his focus on playing golf.
“I think everybody understands my position at the age that I’m at and the opportunity put in front of me,” commented Bland, who turns 50 next week.
For Pieters, it was a round of two halves. He was two-over after making three bogeys on the more difficult front nine, but putted beautifully on the back nine to make seven birdies.
“The front nine, I was a bit scruffy. I made two bogeys with a wedge. Coming off the ninth, I was not in a good head space,” said world number 39 Pieters, who missed the cut as the defending champion in Abu Dhabi last week.
Stanford junior Thorbjornsen, ranked second in the world amateur golf rankings, made an eagle on the 18th and five birdies in his front nine after starting from the 10th tee.
“I enjoy playing professional golf a lot and I’m still an amateur,” he said.
“Just the golf courses that we play, the crowd out there, it’s what I’m dreaming of ever since I was five or six years old. It just feels good to be out there.”
LIV players Patrick Reed and Ian Poulter are also alongside McIlroy in a group of eight men on eight-under.
Luke Donald will play with Henrik Stenson, whom he replaced as Ryder Cup captain after the Swede was sacked for joining LIV, in Sunday’s third round.
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