McIlroy completed a second round of 68 more than an hour before the leaders teed off and headed to the beach hoping not to be facing an insurmountable deficit over the last 36 holes.
And although Sergio Garcia and Francesco Molinari both shot 67 to share the halfway lead on nine under par, McIlroy had not given up hope of coming from eight shots behind to claim a fourth win of the season.
“If I’m within eight or nine shots going into the weekend, I still feel like I have a decent chance,” said McIlroy, whose opening 75 was his first over-par score in 29 rounds in the European Tour’s season finale, an event he has won twice and never finished worse than 11th in in seven appearances.
“Thursday was just one of those days. I was mentally very flat, still in holiday mode and not quite switched on to what I needed to do. I sort of turned it around today and hopefully can do the same over the weekend.”
Garcia carded six birdies and one bogey in his 67, which also featured a brilliant par save on the 12th after driving into a bush and being forced to take a penalty drop.
“I was fortunate a guy from the crowd found it for me and I was able to drop outside the bush,” the Ryder Cup star said. “I hit a really good shot from there with a seven iron and made a really nice putt. I had a good feeling on that putt. I felt like I was going to make it and it was one of those career fours.”
Molinari is enjoying arguably the best form of his career after winning the Italian Open in September, finishing sixth in the WGC-HSBC Champions and fourth in the Shriners Open thanks to a closing 61 in Las Vegas.
And to make matters even better, the 34-year-old’s older brother Edoardo finished joint second in the European Tour’s qualifying school on Thursday to regain his card for next season.
“He was actually disappointed not to win it but I told him not to be too greedy,” Molinari said.
“Second is obviously very good for him and it’s nice to see him back. He did it last year as well but I’m sure he’ll do his best next season not to show up there for a third time. It sounds like he’s playing a lot better, so I’m expecting good things from him next season.”
First-round leader Lee Westwood is a shot off the pace after a 70 marred by hitting his approach on the 18th into a water hazard, with Tyrrell Hatton, Joost Luiten, Charl Schwartzel and Bernd Wiesberger all on seven under.
“Somebody clicked a camera on the right-hand side and put me off,” Westwood said.
“It happens and you just have to regroup. The pitch shot in was poor, but it was a good two-putt. I’m one off the lead and I’ve got a good chance. I’m happy with the way I’m playing and trying to finish off the season strongly.”
Race to Dubai rivals Henrik Stenson and Danny Willett were both on three under after rounds of 69 and 70 respectively, although Stenson was more concerned with the well-being of a female spectator hit on the head by his tee shot on the 13th.
“It was a very unfortunate circumstance,” said the Open champion, who leads Willett by 299,675 points.
“I flared my five-iron right and I’m standing there thinking ‘Is it going in the bunker or flying over the bunker?’ and next thing I see it go into the crowd.
“Unfortunately I hit the lady and she went down, but I had some reports later in the round that she was doing okay. I’m just making sure that we’re going to get her details so I can send her something nice.”