He didn’t break par and even bogeyed the last with a wedge in his hand but defending champion Rory McIlroy can still reflect on the positives of his opening 70 in Honda Classic.
On a day when fallen idol Camilo Villegas eagled the 18th for a 64 to lead the tournament by a stroke, McIlroy concluded a gruelling day by missing the fairway and then the green before tapping in disconsolately for a closing bogey six and a level par round that left him just inside the cut mark in joint 61st
As Graeme McDowell finished with a birdie at the nearby ninth for a 67 that put him in contention, McIlroy was somewhat downcast at the finish.
But he can reflect on many positives from his first par round with Nike clubs in the bag following that disconcerting brace of 75s in Abu Dhabi and that first round loss to Shane Lowry in last week’s Accenture Match Play.
While he hit just seven of 14 fairways and had 30 putts, he still hit 13 greens on a tough course with his B game and can look forward to an early start on perfect greens today as he bids to knock his swing back into shape.
“It wasn’t too eventful, two birdies, two bogeys,” McIlroy said wanly. “I felt okay out there, not great. I guess this golf course, it’s the sort of place that you don’t really go that far under par anyway, so you’ve just got to stay patient.
“It would have been nice to finish off the round a bit better, but I can come back out tomorrow and hopefully give myself a lot of chances for birdies.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I only had 105 yards in for my third shot and ended up taking a six. Wasn’t the nicest way to finish. I saw enough pretty good golf out there to be positive going into the next few days.
“I mean, it’s a hole where you want to try and make the most of and end the day well. I just didn’t do that. I hit a decent layup shot and there’s a good chance for a birdie and to walk away making bogeys is not very nice.”
Whatever about his distance control, McIlroy confessing that he struggled to get the pace of the greens:
“Just the speed was a little off. Some I left short and right in the jaws and some I hit through the break. So yeah, I holed a couple of nice ones coming in - a good one on 14, and then nice par save on 17, as well
“I think if I’d been playing well, or playing the way I know I can, there’s something in the mid 60s out there.
“Hopefully the weather is okay tomorrow and I can go out and try to shoot a good score and put myself in position for the weekend.”
The nub of the matter is that it is not so much the clubs as the swing that is eating the world number one right now.
“I guess as well when you’re working on your swing a lot, it’s hard to commit to the shot that you need to play every time,” he said.
“So if you should play a fade or you know that you should play a fade and you’re not comfortable with it, it’s hard to do. You just revert back to your habits and what you’re doing anyway.
“So just a bit more work on the swing and try to get a bit more comfortable with that and should be okay. But I felt like I hit the ball okay today, not as good as I can, but it’s getting there.”
The 70 eased the mounting pressure on his shoulders and his short game came to the rescue during a shaky run through the Bear Trap as he got up and down for brilliant pars at the 16th and 17th.
Watched by former Shamrock Rovers forward Stephen Grant and pal Shane Lowry, who paid $690 to enter a local mini tour event and shot a one under 71 to Grant’s 65, McIlroy opened with five pars before a bunkered approach to the tough sixth led to his first bogey.
He didn’t panic, however, and took advantage of a huge drive over the trouble at the ninth to fire a wedge to just four feet and roll in the putt to turn in level par.
He stopped briefly to greet Lowry as he walked to the 12th tee but he needed all his powers of concentration to come through the dreaded three-hole Bear Trap stretch to keep his round intact.
After missing an 18 foot chance at the 173-yard 14th, McIlroy missed the 15th fairway and overshot the green but got up and down with a delicate recovery from a heavy lie to just 18 inches.
Bunkered left at the 190-yard 17th, he hit a sensational sand shot to five feet and rolled in the putt there too and headed to the last needing a birdie for a 68 that would have made dinner taste a lot better.
As for McDowell, the Portrush man got off to the perfect start when he hit a 209 yard approach to six feet and birdied the tough 10th.
He didn’t miss a fairway on the tough back nine - his front - and did well to keep a bogey off his card at the par-five 18th where he found sand with this approach, failed to make the green in three and had to hole from 11 feet for par and a one under outward half.
But with the sun beaming down on the back nine the 2010 US Open champion started to find his range with the irons.
First he hit a 137-yard approach to seven feet at the first before a 175-yard missile to eight feet at the second put him three under and within striking distance of the leader.
He came unstuck briefly at the eighth, where the three-putted from 35 feet, missing a three and a half footer for his par.
But he hit a superb approach to 11 feet at the ninth to close with a birdie three and finish his day tied for 16th.
“I hit a few loose ones but I scrambled well and putted well,” McDowell said after warming down with a few shots on the range. “It was a funny round. it could have been better, could have been worse but I’ll take it.
“I hit a lot of quality irons and played that tough back nine well. I’ll take it. The game is all there and this is a place I’ve always enjoyed coming to. I got off to a nice start and that’s what I was trying to do.”
McIlroy wasn’t the only major winner who failed to break par and Tiger Woods had to walk on water just to keep the leaders in his sights with a 70.
One over for the day with four holes to play, he pulled his drive into the lake at the sixth but took off his shoes and socks, pulled on his waterproofs and walked away with a par four.
“Yeah, how about that,” said Woods of his latest miracle escape from water.
“This time, it was only half-submerged, so I could play some kind of explosion shot and get it back in the fairway.
“I got in there and I wasn’t trying to advance it very far, just make sure I got it back in the fairway and give myself some kind of wedge shot in there, which I did, and I got it up-and-down.
“I took off shoes, socks, put rain pants on. Hit a nine-iron and left myself 81 to the hole and hit a little sand wedge in there to ten feet right below and made it.”
As turning points go, following up that miraculous par save with a birdie from 20 feet at the par-three seventh was crucial.
“All of a sudden I flip it, make par there and birdie the next,” Woods said. “Could easily have been three over and all of a sudden I’m even.”
Still the round was not quite what he was looking for and he put the blame squarely on his putter after taking 32 putts on the greens.
“Hit a lot of good shots but I didn’t make anything,” he said. “I hit just a ton of good putts that didn’t make the edge and just never really made anything until No. 7. Other than that, it was pretty much a boring day on the greens.”
The colourful Boo Weekley, who lost his card in 2011 after putting struggles but regained it by the skin of his teeth last year, came back from bogeys at the first two holes to shoot a 66 that left him tied for sixth.
The Floridian had to move a snake on the fourth hole but insisted that he has no plans to take time off for the opening of the forthcoming turkey shooting season.
Comparing the tension that’s affected his putting to shooting a gun at long range, he said:
“I have to take a deep breath and exhale and blow it out and then pull the trigger.”
As for the turkeys, Weekley said: “I’m not much on them turkeys. I’m more worried about golf.
“If I can get this taken care of, I can turkey hunt for the rest of my life.”
Lead Villegas has also had his struggles, confessing that the game “kicked my ass” for a while.
But he eagled the last for a six under 64 that gave him a one stroke lead of South Africa’s Branden Grace, Canadian Graham DeLaet and American Rickie Fowler with Lee Westwood lurking on four under after an effortless 66.