Rory McIlroy is glad he has another three rounds to find some light at the end of a dark tunnel after he failed to take advantage of perfect scoring conditions at a toothless TPC Blue Monster.
As Graeme McDowell got off to a dream start in the WGC-Cadillac Championship, carding six birdies in an immaculate 66 to share the lead with Tiger Woods, Swede Freddie Jacobson, Bubba Watson and playing partner Sergio Garcia, the struggling world number hit just three fairways in a one over par 73 that did little to allay fears over his game with just a month to go before the Masters.
While he insisted he wants to maintain a good relationship with the press, the Holywood man preferred to limited his post round comments to a chat with Sky Sports on a day when 40 players in the 65 man field broke par.
“It was a bit of a struggle to be honest,” said the disappointed 23-year old, who walked off the course after completing just eight holes of his second round in last week’s Honda Classic. “Hit some good shots, hit some not so good shots.
“But as I’ve been saying all week, this is a work in progress and I’m working at it and I’m staying patient. I’ve got another three rounds here to try and work on it a bit more and shoot a few good scores and we’ll see what happens.”
Playing partner Woods conjured up nine birdies in a 66 to outscore McIlroy by seven shots and even the struggling Luke Donald beat the Ulsterman by three in the day’s stellar three-ball.
“It was as easy as it gets around this place today,” said Woods, who narrowly failed to pick up his 10th birdie of the day at the ninth that would have equalled his career best birdie haul on tour.
“The wind wasn’t up like it usually is at Doral and it was coming out of the easier direction. That explains why there are 50-something guys under par.”
McIlroy battled his swing all day but showed few glimpses of the brilliance that saw him include a second major triumph among five wins worldwide in an all-conquering in 2012 campaign.
For the first time in his career, he did a takeaway rehearsal before every single full shot but fluffed his lines when it came to the real thing, hitting just 11 greens in regulation. To add to his woes, he three putted twice from long range.
He went to the turn in two over with three bogeys and a birdie on his card before a spectacular eagle three at the first got him back to level.
But the demons soon returned as he bogeyed the next three holes and while he birdied the seventh from seven feet and picked up another shot at the par-three eighth, shaving the hole from 20 feet with his eagle putt, it was a day to forget, especially considering how well Woods had played to fire nine birdies and three bogeys in his 66.
“It was nice to sneak in a couple birdies on the last three holes and make it look somewhat respectable, even though everyone seems to be going pretty low out there today,” McIlroy said. “It was a day where it was perfect scoring conditions, not much wind, and you could really shoot a good one.”
Comparing his opening round to last Friday’s meltdown, he said: “I wasn’t putting as much pressure on myself and that’s why I didn’t get as frustrated. If I had of played like that last week, I would have been not so happy but as I said, I understand that it’s a work in progress and I’m working at it and it will come together pretty soon.”
McDowell got off a great start, following a tap-in birdie at the par-five first with a 13 footer at the second and a seven footer at the sixth to get to three under.
He then picked up another birdie from 12 feet at the 11th to keep the leaders in his sights and after missing a six foot chance at the 12th he drained a 30 footer at the 14th and a 12 footer at the 17th to snatch a share of the lead and equal his career best round at Doral (2010).
“It’s a lot of fun to come to these WGC’s and be playing against the best players in the world,” McDowell said after his 66. “In a no-cut scenario like this one it is important to get up to the business end of things as early as you can.
“You can very quickly lose your way at this event and be out with the dead men on Saturday and Sunday and that’s not where you want to be,” said Manchester United fan McDowell, who revealed that he lost $100 to Real Madrid fan and playing partner Garcia on Wednesday’s Champions League clash.
“You want to start as fast as you can and be in the tussle for the lead and I am pleased with that opening effort.”
McIlroy was making his way to the range at that stage following a round that summed up his year so far.
The 23-year old got off to a slow start and had to get up and down from greenside sand at the 10th after bunkering his tee shot right and flirting with water with his lay up.
He was bunkered in two at the par-five 12th but hit his recovery heavy and had to settle for par before dropping shots at the next two.
His head dropped when he pulled his approach to the 207-yard 13th and lipped out from eight feet. Then at the 14th, he bunkered his tee shot left and took three to get down from just left of the green, misreading his nine footer for par.
A birdie at the par-three 15th, where he hit a glorious 172-yard tee shot to nine feet and curled in the putt, gave him some respite.
But while it was almost news that he didn’t walk off this time as he played the 18th, he left the green two over for his round.
Having flirted dangerously with the lake on the left, he pushed his approach into the first cut just off the green but came up 10 feet short with his lightning quick downhill chip and missed the putt.
He’d managed to hit three of seven fairways and only four greens in his opening nine holes but it got worse on the back nine before those late birdies turned an ugly score into a semi-respectable one.
While he started back with an eagle three at the first, threading a 220-yard approach through trees in the left rough to the back fringe before coaxing in the 16 foot putt, his joy was short-lived.
After three-putting the second from 60 feet, he failed to get up and down after a hooked tee shot at the fourth and then three-putted again from 40 feet at the short fourth put him joint last in the 65-man field.
A birdie from seven feet at the seventh and a two-putt birdie from 20 feet at the par-five eighth got him back to one over.
Pádraig Harrington birdied the first from 11 feet but didn’t make another significant putt until he holed a 12 footer for par at the 17th in a four over 76 that left him 63rd in the 65 man field in his first competitive round wearing spectacles.
“It was fine apart from one shot where I had to chip out from under a tree and hit through the green because everything looks that much closer,” said Harrington, who wears glasses to try and improve his confidence in his green-reading. “If anything I would say I was a little but biased right to left when without them I am quite a bit biased left to right.”
He bogeyed the third off a hooked drive, missed a four footer for par at the fourth, failed to get up and down from sand at the sixth and then hit his second into water at the par-five eighth to turn in three over.
He then dropped another shot at the 14th where he three putted from the fringe, missing a five footer for par in a round featuring 32 putts but still believes he’s close to finding his range on the greens putting the while package together.
Meanwhile Shane Lowry made a quadruple bogey eight at his penultimate hole to open with a five over 77 that left him near the back of the field in the Puerto Rico Open at Trump International in Rio Grande.
Chasing a top 10 finish that would get him into next week’s PGA Tour event in Tampa, the two-time European Tour winner was two over for his round when he hit a poor tee shot at the 17th and had to take a penalty drop.
He put his third in a fairway bunker, found greenside sand with his fourth and then three-putted before a birdie four at the last left him tied for 127th of the 132 starters, five shots outside the projected cut mark and 12 shots behind leaders Andres Romero and Cameron Percy.