Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

McIlroy struggles as Villegas finds form

Rory McIlroy is six shots off the lead at Palm Beach (AP)

Rory McIlroy's slow start to the new season continued as he began the defence of his Honda Classic title at Palm Beach.

The world number one was level par for his first round, placing him six shots behind leader Camilo Villegas. McIlroy has struggled to rediscover the form that has elevated him to the top of the world rankings so far in 2013 - after moving to new sponsor Nike - highlighted by his first-round exit at the Accenture Match Play Championship to countryman Shane Lowry last week.

"It's hard to commit to the shot that you need to play every time," McIlroy told www.pgatour.com. "I felt like I hit the ball okay, not as good as I can, but it's getting there."

The 23-year-old was steady as he remained level with the card through his first five holes but dropped a stroke at the par-four sixth. He recovered the shot at the ninth before beginning his run home in near-perfect conditions in south Florida. And it was more of the same on the back nine as he picked up a shot on the 14th but bogeyed the last.

It was a very different story for 2010 champion Villegas, who eagled the 18th to finish off a blemish-free round. It was quite a charge from the Colombian, who was one under through 12, then picked up five strokes over the last six holes.

Behind him was a group of four players on five under - Branden Grace, Graham DeLaet, Rickie Fowler and Robert Streb. South African Grace stole a share of the second after he made a mockery of Palm Beach's 'Bear Trap' - the three famed holes from 15 to 17 - to finish his round of 65 with four successive birdies.

Co-leader DeLaet did not fare as well through the late test, recording his only blemish for the round at 16, but it did not matter as he recovered the stroke at 18 to go with his five earlier birdies, while Streb, like Villegas, eagled the last.

A group of 10 players was a stroke further back including England's world number nine Lee Westwood and Americans Boo Weekley and Dustin Johnson. Westwood carded four birdies in a blemish-free round, two on the front nine and two more on the back.

Tiger Woods, who was runner-up to McIlroy last year, had to settle for an even round of 70 after battling back from bogeys at the 10th, his opener, and 13th. The 14-time major winner took until the par-five third to card his first birdie, sinking a six-footer, before he somehow escaped with par at the sixth after hooking his drive left and having to play out of a marsh.

Woods earned immediate reward with birdie at the next to go level par for the first time. McIlroy's fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell was three under and Justin Rose two under, but two other Englishmen had a day to forget. Paul Casey and Brian Davis were tied, along with David Duval, for 140th on eight over par.

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