IT WASN’T the start he wanted with his new set of clubs but don’t write him off just yet. The last time Rory McIlroy shot a 75, he went on to win a major – last year’s USPGA Championship at Kiawah Island – by eight shots.
He needed only two rounds to leave the field trailing in his wake on that occasion and, potentially at least, McIlroy has three days left to celebrate his much-publicised mega-money deal with Nike by winning the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship.
The world No 1 will need to get his “Swoosh” together today, though, to avoid an embarrassing start with his new equipment company by missing a first cut since last year’s US Open.
An opening three-over 75 that included two double-bogeys – wayward shots that had been few and far between with his old equipment were the root on each occasion – wasn’t what he had in mind after his glitzy unveiling in the UAE capital earlier in the week.
Neither was the tee shot Tiger Woods, his new stablemate and playing partner for the opening two rounds here, hit at the first – his tenth – as he also started his season in less-than-spectacular fashion with a 72.
Revealing later that he hadn’t “committed to the shot” after foolishly changing his game-plan on the back of booming drives at the two previous holes, the 14-time major winner caught the ground a full two inches behind the ball.
It only went around 120 yards and didn’t reach the fairway, sparking a swearing outburst from Woods as it cost him the first of back-to-back bogeys that killed the momentum he’d got going following three birdies in four holes at the end of his front nine. All in all, it certainly wasn’t the fare the gallery following the star duo in an event that has been dubbed as the “Return of the Giants” were expecting.
Not that those galleries were anything like the circus we’ll see when the world No 1 and No 2 are paired together in majors or on the PGA Tour later in the year. Barely 100 watched them tee off and the numbers could only have risen to around 1,000 by the finish.
Having said that, at least one member of the crowd had gone out of his way to have a bit of fun as the game’s two superstars locked horns. A Canadian called Chris and clearly a Tiger fan had prepared a T-shirt with a message for McIlroy.
“Rory is great… but Tiger is the greatest” it said above a list of Woods’s main achievements in the game, namely 14 majors, 74 PGA Tour win, 100 worldwide wins, six US Amateur victories and 623 weeks ranked as the world No 1.
McIlroy’s opening competitive blow with his new clubs found a fairway bunker and it soon became evident that, despite having felt comfortable with them in practice, the switch may not, in fact, prove “seamless”.
At the par-3 15th, he blocked his tee shot around 30 yards wide of the pin, short-siding himself in the process and dropped two shots. Woods enjoyed a three-shot swing there as he rolled in a 30ft downhill putt for his first birdie of 2013.
A wild pull into the hospitality unit at the side of the 18th green wasn’t exactly a good advert for McIlroy’s new equipment and neither was a drive that hit a tree before sailing out of bounds into a car park at the third – his 12th.
By the finish, he’d only hit five fairways – six fewer than the likes of Paul Lawrie and David Drysdale – although, in fairness to McIlroy, it was a tough test to start his season, despite the fact that the wind wasn’t nearly as strong as it had been for the practice rounds. McIlroy said: “I didn’t drive the ball particularly well and didn’t putt too well, so they are two aspects I need to work on.”
He did just that with his coach Michael Bannon on the practice range after a spot of lunch.
“It is still a learning process [with the new equipment] and I am not overly concerned how I played today. There is still a little rust in my game because, if I had been tournament sharp, I would have shaved a few shots more off my score.”
Woods, who had to play left-handed from behind a bush at one hole and three-putted from 35ft to drop a shot at the last, blamed the conditions more than recent lack of competitive action for failing to break par in his opening salvo of the new campaign.
“It’s tough out there as there are a lot of crosswinds and it was a day of just surviving,” said the American, who declined to comment on a report back home in the National Enquirer claiming that he had made a $200 million reconciliation bid with Elin Nordegren, his former wife.
Even the two joint-leaders, England’s world No 5 Justin Rose and Welshman Jamie Donaldson, conceded it had been a battle as they opened with 67s, one fewer than Dane Thorbjorn Olesen and Spaniard Pablo Larrazabal.
“The set up is difficult, the fairways are narrow and the rough is punishing,” said Rose, who failed to register a single birdie in the pre-event pro-am, but managed six when it mattered, including a monster putt at the fifth and a holed bunker shot at the ninth. The latter has become one of Rose’s real strengths – he finished fourth in that department on the PGA Tour last season – and the 32-year-old was delighted to have taken up where he’d left off in the desert, having finished with a 62 up the road in Dubai when he was pipped by McIlroy in the Tour Championship in Dubai. He added: “I didn’t have it completely under control with my long game today, but this type of test suits me.”
(Gbr & Irl unless stated, par 72):
67 Justin Rose, Jamie Donaldson
68 Thorbjorn Olesen (Den), Pablo Larrazabal (Spa)
69 Michael Campbell (Nzl), David Howell, Wen-chong Liang (Chn), George Coetzee (Rsa), Henrik Stenson (Swe)
70 Soren Kjeldsen (Den), Jeev Milkha Singh (Ind), Joost Luiten (Ned), Danny Willett, Gonzalo Fdez-Castano (Spa), Thongchai Jaidee (Tha)
71 Anders Hansen (Den), Garth Mulroy (Rsa), Ricardo Santos (Por), Branden Grace (Rsa), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Simon Wakefield, Johan Edfors (Swe), Joel Sjoholm (Swe), Lee Slattery, Ernie Els (Rsa), Jason Dufner (USA), Gareth Maybin, Chris Paisley, Paul Casey, Andy Sullivan, Richard Green (Aus)
72 Tiger Woods (USA), Matteo Manassero (Ita), Peter Lawrie, Graeme Storm, Alessandro Tadini (Ita), Thomas Bjorn (Den), Michael Hoey, Richard Bland, Craig Lee, Espen Kofstad (Nor), Phillip Price, Marcel Siem (Ger), Darren Fichardt (Rsa), Raphael Jacquelin (Fra), Ricardo Gonzalez (Arg), Jbe Kruger (Rsa), Keith Horne (Rsa), Gregory Bourdy (Fra), Mark Foster, Padraig Harrington, Fredrik Andersson Hed (Swe)
Others: 73 Richie Ramsay. 74 Paul Lawrie. 75 Scott Jamieson. 76 Colin Montgomerie, Stephen Gallacher. 77 David Drysdale, Christopher Doak. 78 Scott Henry, Marc Warren. 79 Darren Clarke. 81 Callum Nicoll