Lee Westwood spoke of a December battle with Covid-19 that continues to affect him as he begins his professional year. Westwood, who has asthma, revealed last week in Abu Dhabi that it was the first time he had completed 18 holes since competing in Houston in mid-November.

Westwood is in contention at the Dubai Desert Classic having delivered a straight 69. He is five from the halfway mark, owned by Justin Harding. Westwood’s explanation of the circumstances makes his performance here particularly impressive. “Covid has upset me a lot,” he said. “It was like the flu and a lung infection. I don’t get sick very often and I hate being sick and it takes a lot to stop me but I didn’t really get off the couch for two weeks in December. It surprised me how bad I was. It’s exhausting. I don’t feel like I can get that much air into my lungs right now. I am happy to have been vaccinated.

Westwood, who will compete in Saudi Arabia next week, ignored comments from former Ryder Cup teammate Colin Montgomerie. The Scot referred to ‘that evil word, money’ in regards to those playing in the Saudi international. “Everyone has their own opinions,” Westwood said. This problem persists.

Paul Casey tied Westwood’s set despite a visible neck problem. “I need full physical ability if I want to try and compete with the guys at the top of the leaderboard,” the defending champion said. “So hopefully I’ll feel better tomorrow.”

Harding added a 68 on Thursday’s 65 to earn a two-shot lead over Tyrrell Hatton. “Winning this tournament would be pretty special,” Hatton said. “I remember when I was in school, waking up early in the morning to start watching it.”

Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy’s 66 for a total of seven under means he retains legitimate hopes of what would be a third Desert Classic success.

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The highlight of McIlroy’s day two was a chip eagle on the 13th. “I hit the ball well enough to put that score down a bit,” McIlroy said. “I missed a few chances. I certainly hit the ball as well as I have in a long time, it could have been a bit better but 66 this afternoon is a good score and sets me up for a good weekend.

Ian Poulter and Robert MacIntyre were among those who missed the halfway point.