Rory McIlroy’s first competitive round as a Nike golfer turned out to be a bitter disapppointment for the marketing men as he struggled off the tee and on the greens and opened with a three over 75 in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
With playing partner Tiger Woods also struggling before eventually plotting his way around in level par 72, it was former world No 1 Martin Kaymer who edged the threeball with a one under 71 leaving him four shots behind pacesetters Justin Rose and Jamie Donaldson.
Gareth Myabin leads the Irish challenge after a one under 71 while Pádraig Harrington chipped in twice late in his round - for birdie at the 14th and a par-five at the last - to shoot 72 and end the day tied for 32d with likes of Woods, Peter Lawrie and Michael Hoey.
Starting on the back nine in testing, windy conditions, McIlroy made an early birdie at the 13th before playing the remaining 14 holes in four over par. It was certainly not the kind of performance that the Oregon based sports giant, or McIlroy, was hoping for following Monday’s high-tech announcement of McIlroy’s signing.
“Of course, it takes time to get used to … it’s a little bit of an experimental period,” McIlroy said. “I guess when you’re going out with new stuff you’re always going to be a little anxious.”
“I feel like I was just a little bit rusty,” McIlroy told Sky Sports after carding his worst opening round of the year since he shot 73 in Abu Dhabu in 2008 and finished 11th.
In 2009 (T5), ‘10 (3rd), ‘11 (2nd) and ‘12 (2nd) he began with scores of 66, 66, 71 and 67.
“I didn’t drive the ball particularly well which you need to do around here because the rough is very thick. When I did drive in the fairway I actually hit my irons very well and just didn’t hole any putts.
“I didn’t drive well and didn’t putt well so I’m going to work on that this afternoon.”
McIlroy knows it is going to take time to get used to his new club and ball combination and hopes to improve over the next three days before firing on all cylinders when he returns to action in the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Arizona in four weeks’ time.
However, his statistics made for cuncomfortable reading - just five of 14 fairways hit, 12 greens and 31 putts. Woods hit the same number of fairways but hit just 10 greens with 29 putts.
A double bogey five at the par-three 15th put him over par and while he birdied the par-five second, he made a double bogey six at the third and then bogeyed the par-five eighth after a poor drive and a bunkered lay-up.
Planning an afternoon on the practice ground with coach Michael Bannon, McIlroy explained: “Obviously it does (take time to get used to new equipment) but I was really happy with the way the ball was in the wind. Really happy with the irons, the wedge play.
“I wasn’t very comfortable off the tee but that’s because I didn’t feel like I was swinging it that well. And then on the green it wasn’t really happening for me there.
“For the most part I was very happy with everything I just need to work on a few things.”
Woods hoped to finish under par but three-putted the ninth for a level par 72 that left him five strokes adrift of early leader Jamie Donaldson.
“I didn’t quite do it,” said the original Nike Golf pitchman of a blustery day in the desert, “but it is tough out there.
“These fairways are tiny to hit and it’s like every hole is a crosswind hole. Not too many holes are playing straight down or straight in.
“The rough is deep enough where it is tough to get to the greens so it is imperative to get the ball in the fairway. Not a lot of guys are going low today. It was a day for surviving and keep going the next few days.”
He duffed his drive at the first hole, his 10th, moving the ball just 120 yards.
“My game plan was to hit a three-iron or five-wood on that hole and then I changed my mind,” he said.
“I should have just backed off and followed my game plan. I had a strategy for the day and clubs I was going to use and what spot I was going to hit it too. I didn’t do that there, paid the price and made bogey.”
Donaldson had six birdies and a bogey in a 67 to lead by a shot in the clubhouse from the exciting Norwegian Thornbjorn Olesen and Spain’s Pablo Larrazábal before Ryder Cup hero Rose matched him in more testing afternoon conditions.
Dubliner Harrington, back in the world’s top 50 for the first time in 18 months following his fourth place finish in South Africa last week, had four birdies and four bogeys in a scrappy 72.
The world No 48 birdied the and three birdies and a bogey in the first three holes before dropped shots at the sixth and 12th saw him drop back to level par.
He chipped in from just off the back of the 14th green for birdie but bogeyed the next and had to chip in from around 18 feet again to save par at the last on a day when he hit just nine greens in regulation and holed little with the putter.
The two chip-ins helped his putting statistics - he had 26 putts but 17 for the nine greens he hit in regulation.
Seventy players were on one over par or better, leaving McIlroy tied for 83rd and in danger of missing the cut for the first time in six appearances in abu Dhabi following his worst round since he opened with a 73 in 2008.
Ryder Cup skipper Paul McGinley came back down to earth with a four over 76 and was joined in joint 96th place by Damien McGrane, who double bogeyed the par-five 18th.
World No 54 Shane Lowry crashed to a six over 78 after a poor opening nine that featured a bogey at the 10th and double bogeys at the 15th and 17th.
While he birdied the first and second, the Clara man dropped three shots in a row from the fifth as he had 32 putts on the greens.
It was even worse for former Open champion Darren Clarke, who had nine bogeys in a seven over 79 - seven of them on the back nine, his opening nine.
The former Open champion missed eight greens but could get up and down for par just once.