Before the ball flight instructs whether a golf shot is good or bad, the sound at impact lets you know. His tee shot at the last echoed to the sweet thwack of mallet on tent peg and made Rory McIlroy feel a whole lot better about his day. The ball sailed straight down the middle. Not quite Tiger long, but long enough with the new Nike driver he had battled all day. Hitherto he was all over the place, including a car park by the third fairway, courtesy of a ricochet off a tree, which required him to return to the tee for another go.
Considering his struggles off the tee, and his inability to judge the speed of sluggish greens, which on his opening hole, the tenth, saw his putt end up in the sand, a three-over-par 75 was a triumph. He accepts that the battle now is to make the cut. With his old clubs and top form, McIlroy could still strike gold from here. Rust and a lack of trust are two issues guaranteed to kill a round of golf and confidence. And McIlroy was suffering from both in Abu Dhabi.
“There was a bit of rust, not playing competitive golf for eight weeks. And I guess going out with new stuff you are always going to be a little bit anxious. It was a funny start. First hole, hit it on the green and putted into the bunker. I didn’t drive the ball particulary well, which you need to do around here because the rough is so thick. I didn’t putt well either, so a lot to work on.”
McIlroy repaired to the range in the afternoon seeking the requisite rhythm and commitment. Taking to the course with a card to sign has its own way of exposing brittle confidence garnered in practice. Until he puts a score together in the crucible of competition, the old fluency will not repeat. “It’s a little bit of an experimental period. I’ve been working on it, leading up to Christmas and the New Year, and I have four weeks off after this to work. If I can just get comfortable and swing it a little better I can still play some good rounds here.”
Playing partners Tiger Woods and Martin Kaymer played far steadier golf in trying conditions but were not without their moments, either. Woods caught his drive fat on the first tee, his tenth, propelling his ball apologetically past the ladies tee into dense grass. From there genius combined with an iron grip to fire the ball down the fairway.
Kaymer was in the water twice, carving his drive on the first and pulling his tee shot on the ninth. The latter was doubly surprising since he was using a rescue club, itself an exercise in damage limitation after a wayward drive on the eighth. Despite recording a bogey at the last, Kaymer signed for a 71. That should have been Woods’ number after ripping his drive at the last but a clumsy three-putt produced a bogey for a level-par 72.
“I wanted to shoot under par and didn’t quite make it. But I’m right there,” Woods said. “It’s tough. The fairways are tiny to begin with and there are a lot of cross winds making them tough to hit. Miss and the rough out there is pretty tough. On the first I changed the game plan and wasn’t committed to the shot. I didn’t want to hit it and just made an awful swing.”
No such problems for Justin Rose, heading up the second half of the draw, and at the end of the day leading the field on five under par. The world no.5 said he enjoyed coming into the tournament in the shadow of McIlory and Woods. The will be no hiding place if he keeps this up.
“A good start,” he said. “It didn’t feel perfect, but that was the nature of the day, the nature of the golf course, narrow fairways, cross winds and deep rough, you have to accept mistakes will be made. I’m just happy to be in contention. Now I need to keep the momentum going the rest of the week.”