Rory beats Tiger at his own game! McIlroy turns escapologist to lead in Abu Dhabi
As so often when it comes to Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, one played golf with smoke and mirrors and compiled an improbably low score, while the other gave an exquisite demonstration of ball-striking but couldn't buy a putt.
The nice little twist at the Abu Dhabi Championship on Thursday, however, was that it was McIlroy who played the role of escapologist for once to shoot a first round 67, while it was Woods who hit virtually every fairway and green but had to settle for a 70.
As for the third member of the group, world No 1 Luke Donald played a familiar role, content to walk in the shadows of the two biggest box office attractions and compile a quietly impressive 71.
Good to talk: Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods were both impressive in Abu Dhabi
McIlroy finished the day as joint leader alongside the Swede Robert Karlsson.
Ulsterman Gareth Maybin and England's Richard Finch shot 68s.
World No 3 Lee Westwood carded a prosaic 72 while the shock of the day was provided by German Martin Kaymer, who has won this event three times in the last four years. He opened with a decidedly ring-rusty 77.
Shot of the day came from Sergio Garcia, who holed in one at the 12th and won an annual three-day stay at the seven star Emirates Palace Hotel for the rest of his life.
This was the first time Woods and McIlroy had played together in a European Tour event and a goodly crowd gathered for the start, even though it was 7.40am.
Wayward: McIlroy struggled to hit fairways but still carded a fine 67
As McIlroy said: 'First round tee times at that hour don't usually get me excited but this one did.'
Woods and McIlroy chatted away down each fairway like a couple of members out for a casual two-ball. They talked about their gym routines, their dogs – they both have two each – what they did in the off-season, you name it.
As the round progressed, Woods must have been getting a mite irritated at outplaying McIlroy but falling further behind.
'I wish I could hit more fairways,' sighed McIlroy at one point.
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1st rnd (GB & Ire unless stated):
67 — R McIlroy, R Karlsson (Swe).
68 — J-B Gonnet (F), G Maybin, R Finch.
69 — R Ramsay, R Rock, N Colsaerts (Bel).
70 — P Lawrie, A Wall, T Woods (US), C Schwartzel (SA), J Edfors (Swe), JM Lara (Sp),
D Drysdale, J Kruger (SA), T Olesen (Den), W-C Liang (Chn), M Hoey.
71 — L Donald.
72 — L Westwood
'You don't seem to need to,' was Woods's tart response.
Best of all was the 17th hole, the par five 8th on the card, where McIlroy never saw the fairway or green but still walked off with a birdie. How's that for out-Tigering Tiger
For Sherlock fans wondering how he did it, he hit his drive into the rough, his recovery shot into more rough, before an approach that finished just off the putting surface.
'This chip is very holeable,' said McIlroy's caddy JP Fitzgerald to his man, before Rory proceeded to demonstrate just how holeable.
Only a fool could fail to spot the dramatic change in McIlroy's body shape these past 12 months, as he's gone from Northern Irish bantamweight to an impressive physical specimen.
No, it's not to impress his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki. It's all about the last eight inches the clubhead has to travel before it reaches the ball.
What could possibly go wrong in that split-second, you might be thinking to yourself You'd be surprised.
Quietly impressive: Luke Donald carded a one-under-par 71 to open
After undergoing a battery of tests, McIlroy discovered that his swing reached its optimum power eight inches short of the ball. Thereafter, he wasn't strong enough on his left side to have total control and while he got away with it most times it led a level of inconsistency he considered unacceptable.
So, for the first time in his life, he has developed more than a passing acquaintance with the gym to develop his core strength and particularly the muscles down his left side, so he can harness his power through the hitting area.
'I did a bit of 3D testing last week and I could see that it was a lot better than last year, and that's down to being a lot stronger in my legs and glutes,' he explained. 'It means I can keep the club in a better position on the way down and do it more often.'
If truth be told, there wasn't much
evidence of him keeping the club in a better position here. As he said
afterwards, it's amazing what happens when it's the first round of the
year and you've got a scorecard in your hand.
Trapped: World No 2 Lee Westwood could only manage a level-par 72
But McIlroy has seen enough in practice to believe he will be a better golfer than ever this year.
As for Woods, it was hard not to be impressed with his play from tee to green. The fact he hit 17 greens in regulation and had 34 putts says everything.
'I thought I hit a lot of good putts but I just found it hard to read these greens,' he confessed. 'It was a little more difficult than it should have been.'
What must be exciting for him, however, is the fact his long game is in such rude health, and that he is carrying on from where he left off last year, when he won his final event, the Chevron Challenge.
There's no question he's edging his way back to greatness. Get a bet on him for the Masters while you still can.