DORAL, Fla. – Jason Day won’t show up at Doral on Friday putting cross-handed, but given how things played out on Thursday it would be hard to blame him if he did.
The Australian is comfortable with his standard putting grip that produced so many magical moments last year, and one day on the wrong side of the cross-handed ledger against Jordan Spieth and recent convert Rory McIlroy isn’t going to prompt that kind of transition.
For the record, Spieth took low needle-mover honors with a 3-under 69, followed by McIlroy at 1 under and Day at even par on Thursday. It should also be noted all three trailed front-runners Scott Piercy and Marcus Fraser on the Doral big board.
But then the “Big 3” have won four out of the last five majors, and Frazer and Piercy are a combined 3-for-4 in cuts made at those same majors. So, they’ve got that going for them.
The unvarnished takeaway from Day 1 at the WGC-Cadillac Championship was that it was a relatively quiet affair for the marquee with the most.
The world’s top three players were paired together for the first time since last year’s Players Championship, yet even after the three-ball all birdied the day’s first hole (No. 10) it wasn’t as if Doral came alive with buzz.
“It was good at the start and then it kind of declined coming in. And I was the first one to go,” said Day, who went from billabong (No. 16) to the Bermuda rough (No. 18) to get things moving in the wrong direction with two quick bogeys just before the turn and never looked comfortable on or around the greens.
McIlroy looked more at ease tee-to-green but needed 33 putts and, he conceded, more time working out the kinks of the new putting grip.
But it was Jordan Spieth who exited cloudy Doral with some pop in his step after matching his best round on a golf course that’s never seemed to be his cup of cafecito.
Even after a bogey at his final hole, the par-3 ninth, the world No. 1 didn’t have the look or tone of a man searching for answers.
“I could certainly have controlled and finished better,” said Spieth, who in two starts at Doral has finished tied for 17th and 34th. “But I feel I would certainly sign up right now for three more rounds with the same score.”
If all this doesn’t exactly live up to the expectations born from pairing the world’s top-3 ranked players, it shouldn’t. Thursday’s subdued vibe is exactly why this type of contrived grouping never lives up to the hype.
While the math looks good on paper, these types of clashes occur only organically.
In 2005, back before this South Florida stop became an exclusive club with a WGC pedigree, 144 players gathered at Doral but it came down to just two – Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Mickelson, who was ranked fourth in the world at the time, began that frenzied final day two strokes clear of then-second-ranked Woods and shot a closing 69. Tiger would go three better (66) in an inspiring duel to take the title by a stroke.
Fate, not a faux pairing, brought the game’s titans together that day, and if that ’05 Ford Championship is any guide a healthy amount of fortune is also required, and fortune always favors the prepared.
Woods arrived at Doral that year two weeks removed from winning at Torrey Pines, Lefty was fresh off two triumphs on the West Coast (FBR Open and Pebble Beach), and the cosmic tumblers delivered a classic mano-a-mano finish.
By contrast, none of the so called “Big 3” appear to be in particularly good form heading into the year’s first World Golf Championship. McIlroy and Spieth both missed the cut in their last starts and Day is playing just his fourth event of 2016 and is understandably rusty.
This is not an indictment of the game’s best, only the unrealistic expectations of an early-week attempt to manufacture something epic.
They tried to make magic.
“We were actually able to feed off each other for a while on a very difficult golf course through the first 12 holes or so, and then each of us had a bit of a slip towards the end, and a little bit of a damper on the round,” Spieth said. “But we'll come back tomorrow and get off to a good start.”
Even the crowds seemed to sense the distinction between a weekend draw that has all the makings of an instant classic, and, well, fabrication.
“I thought there was going to be a few more people out there,” Day said. “It will be better. It's Thursday. Once the weekend comes around, there's going to be a few more people having a drink and it should be a little bit louder.”
And honestly, as entertaining as these Thursday-Friday pairings may be, aren’t things always better on the weekend?