WGC Cadillac: Rory McIlroy feels draught at the top of the world
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, particularly when it's gusting 25mph, you're “feeling flat” and a Blue Monster is rattling your cage. So it was for Rory McIlroy here at the WGC Cadillac yesterday as, on his first competitive day as world No 1, he shot over par for the first time in five months.
Perhaps his one-over 73 in windy conditions was inevitable after his heroics of Sunday, when victory in the Honda Classic lifted him above Luke Donald to become the second-youngest player to the top the order in the 26-year-old history of the rankings. This has been extraordinary run from the 22-year-old, notching 11 top fives in a stretch going back to the USPGA last August. His third-round 73 in Korea 29 rounds ago, was the last time he recorded a round in the blue.
"To be honest, I felt a little flat out there," said McIlroy after four bogeys ganged up on his three birdies. "I shouldn't because it's a World Golf Championship event. But then, when you've won the Honda and gone to No 1 all of a sudden you're there and you're like 'Well, what do I do now?' I just need to go out and set myself a target tomorrow and try to post a number."
McIlroy's challenge now will be to ensure his reign does not last a mere week. Depending on where the Ulsterman finishes, Donald could win back his throne with a top-four finish. And but for a bogey, double-bogey spurt on his eighth and ninth holes (he started on the 10th) the Englishman would have been challenging the Australian Adam Scott and the American Jason Dufner, the leaders on six-under with a 66.
Still, Donald would have been more than happy with his two-under 70, especially as he came out best in the Great British and Ireland three-ball. The world No 2 beat the No 1 by three and the No 3 by six. In many respects, Lee Westwood's was the most intriguing round.
Followed by a crowd about half the size of the Tiger Woods gallery – the 14-time major champion six back on level par – McIlroy, Donald and Westwood were in a chatty mood as they set off. Westwood and McIlroy were particularly friendly, making their supposed "grudge" seem more than slightly ridiculous. And anyway Westwood soon had a genuine foe; the Doral layout with "the Blue Monster" tag.
Westwood, who needs to win here to stand any chance of usupring McIlroy striped his first drive, but then, for the next nine holes, only stars appeared in front of his eyes. It was less Cadillac and more caddyshack. Indeed, if it wasn't for some extraordinary escapes from bunkers, the damage on Westwood's scorecard would have been more disastrous than a 40 and an eventual 76.
It was a dramatic change in form. On Sunday, Westwood's 63 took him to fourth place at the Honda Classic and he made the 90-minute journey south to Miami confident of at least bettering his best performance at Doral; a tie for 18th last year. Tee to green he has had no superior for the last two years or so and that's what made wayward Westwood cut such a unfamiliar figure. He took three unplayables on his first nine, the first on his first hole (the 10th) when he flew the ball from a greenside bunker over the green and into a water hazard.
Then, after three-putting the 11th, he drove into thick rough, hacked across the fairway into a bush and, after accepting a penalty, located another greenside bunker. This time his sand-wedge saved him, as it was to on the 15th and the 18th, but it was ultimately fighting a losing battle. On the 16th, Westwood's drive was 70 yards of line, burying itself in another bush on the left of the fairway. Another unplayable, another bogey. At this stage he was 74th out of 74.
Credit to Westwood for coming back in level par. There was a humourous moment of his 13th when he hit his approach and a spectator shouted "Go!". Westwood shouted back "Don't go, sit!". Undeterred the spectator screamed "Go! go!", to which Westwood replied "Shut up, will you? Sit!". Eventually the ball landed pin high and the putt was holed. But two bogeys kept him near the back of the pack, alongside Ian Poulter who was displaying the after-effects of his recent bout of pneumonia.
"I've lost 10lbs and after five days in bed I was bound to struggle a bit," said Poulter. "My legs were tired but I'm just glad to have got in a round of golf."
Woods has greater aims as he tries to build on his 62 on Sunday which led to a tie for second, his best "official" result in more than two years. He finished with an eagle at Palm Beach and started with an eagle here.
"The intent was to play where I left off [at the PGA National] and I got off to a nice start," he said. "But a couple of mistakes with iron shots on the eighth and ninth cost me bogeys. After that I played really solid golf but just couldn't make enough birdies."
Woods was aware that with these winds it could have far been worse. He could have been his playing partner Sergio Garcia, who went out in 31 and came back in 44 for a three-over 75. The Spaniard cruised through his first 12 holes with seven birdies to stand at five-under and proceeded to play his remaining six holes in eight over. Five bogeys and a triple on the 18th. Ouch.