The 1997 Masters, and the impact 20 years later

By Ryan LavnerMarch 28, 2017, 11:00 pm

Twenty years later, as they all predicted, nothing is the same.

Not the reach. Not the style. Not the culture.

And certainly not the protagonist himself.

Golf was changed in such profound ways April 13, 1997, that the sport was essentially divided into two time periods, B.T. and A.T. – Before and After Tiger.

Sure, Woods, with help from Nike, his $8-million-a-year sponsor, had already scripted his introduction eight months earlier, at his PGA Tour pro debut in Milwaukee. But his record- and spirit-breaking performance at the ’97 Masters shook golf to its core, transforming not only the current landscape but also inspiring a future generation of Tiger wannabes.

Athletes and media members are prone to hyperbole – after all, how many “eras” have come and gone in the past six years? – but in the wake of Woods’ game-changing victory, shell-shocked pros proved prophetic on the kid’s seismic impact. He indeed would launch a new, prosperous epoch. And he would validate the idea that golfers were athletes. And, most of all, he would enjoy such a dominant reign that he stunted his peers’ careers and rewrote records and created unrealistic expectations for himself and everyone who followed.

“The 1997 Masters wasn’t so much a ‘Hello, world’ moment,” says former No. 1 David Duval. “It was more like, Watch out, world.’’

IN THE SPRING OF 1997, Greg Norman was in the midst of a 96-week run atop the Official World Golf Ranking. Most weeks, players competed for a $270,000 first-place check. TV ratings reflected the sport’s niche status. And the only guys with six-packs were those who stopped by the 7-Eleven near the course.

At the time, the fastest riser in the rankings was Tiger Woods. Still just 21, the would-be junior at Stanford had won three of his first nine starts and entered the Masters, his first major as a pro, at No. 13 in the world.

It was the realization of two decades of relentless hype and potential, ever since he charmed “Mike Douglas Show” viewers as a diaper-wearing prodigy. A prolific winner at every level, Woods became a source of fascination among Tour players.

“Before he came out, [Woods’ swing coach] Butch Harmon said if this kid can control his distance, you won’t be able to beat him,” Davis Love III says. “But Butch always said outlandish stuff, and I was like, Come on, Butch.”

Woods’ legend only grew once he captured an unprecedented six consecutive USGA amateur titles. During his final U.S. Amateur, at Pumpkin Ridge, he squared off against hotshot junior Charles Howell III in the quarterfinals. Howell, who has now earned more than $32 million on Tour, lost that match, 2 and 1. “I didn’t know all the golfing gods in history were against me that day,” he says.

Woods clearly had distinguished himself, not just with his awesome talent but his appearance. He was a mixed-race kid – his father, Earl, was African-American, while his mother, Tida, is Thai – playing the least racially integrated of all the major American sports.  

No club symbolized golf’s well-earned reputation of exclusivity like Augusta National. The club’s co-founder, Clifford Roberts, once infamously said, “as long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.” No black golfer played the Masters until Lee Elder in 1975. (Only Jim Thorpe and Calvin Peete followed in the next two decades, before Woods made his first appearance in ’95.) Until 1982, all of the caddies in the tournament were black. Ron Townsend, a TV executive, became the club’s first black member in 1990, and only after the Shoal Creek debacle.

Woods, who encountered racism while growing up in Southern California, was hesitant to play the race card. In 1995, before playing in the U.S. Open, he released a statement to the media, saying that his ethnic background “should not make a difference” and that he hoped to be recognized as a “golfer and a human being.” Later, he would, controversially, refer to his ethnic makeup as “Cablinasian.”

But even more than the color of his skin, Woods appealed to the masses because of his dynamic style. He was telegenic and well-spoken, athletic and demonstrative. He possessed a self-belief and confidence that belied his age. And, yes, he hit the ball unfathomable distances, as he wound up his sinewy frame and pounded drives into the stratosphere.

Steve Stricker was paired with Woods in early 1997. Then 29, Stricker was coming off a solid season in which he won twice and finished fourth on the money list. But it was obvious Woods played a game with which Stricker was unfamiliar.

“I played with him at Pebble,” Stricker says, “and I said, ‘I don’t have that.’ He’s hitting it 310 or 315 and hitting 3-wood past my driver, and he just had this intimidating look about him and this belief in himself.”

It was the same look that Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer had seen a year earlier, during a practice round with Woods at the 1996 Masters. Afterward, Nicklaus was asked about the 20-year-old, who was playing his second Masters as an amateur.

“Arnold and I both agree,” Nicklaus said, “that you could take his Masters (four) and my Masters (six) and add them together and this kid should win more than that.”

And yet, Woods headed into the ’97 Masters without breaking par in his previous six rounds at Augusta, where he was a combined 11 over par. Oddsmakers still listed him at 8-1 to win – the same odds as Norman, the world No. 1, and defending champion Nick Faldo.

Mark O’Meara knew better, having played a match with Woods the week before the Masters, at Isleworth, their home club in Florida. Woods shot 59. The next day, he went 5 under on the front nine, birdied 10 and then made a hole-in-one on 11.

“I looked at him and I got in my cart and drove back to my house,” O’Meara recalls. “I’m like, this is ridiculous. I’m not playing with you anymore. I’m done.”

Photo gallery: Round-by-round of Tiger's win in the '97 Masters

AND THEN WOODS OPENED the Masters with a 40.

Loose with his driver, he made a few rookie mistakes early alongside the intimidating Faldo, dropping shots on the first, fourth, eighth and ninth holes. Fuming as he marched to the 10th tee, he astutely diagnosed that his backswing was too long and out of position at the top.

With one 2-iron swing off the 10th tee, it clicked. Birdie. Then he chipped in from a devilish spot behind the 12th green.

“That was basically the start of his career,” Faldo says now, “and I say jokingly, from then on, we didn’t see him for the next 12 years.”

Woods birdied 13 and then made eagle on the 500-yard 15th, where a mammoth drive left him only a 151-yard wedge into the green. He tacked on a birdie at 17 for a back-nine, 6-under 30, his opening 70 putting him only three back of early leader John Huston.

“Everyone was giving energy,” Faldo says. “If you’re thinking about somebody, you’re giving him a bit of your energy. I remember him walking onto the range at Augusta and he was like a freight train of aura, just going, Woompf!, and every eye goes, Woompf!, and every camera goes, Woompf!, and the whole world is on the outside looking in.”

Only Woods was unfazed. Friday afternoon, while paired with Paul Azinger, Woods went eagle-birdie-birdie on Nos. 13-15 to take the lead. It was the first time that Azinger had seen Woods play in person. “When he hit it,” Azinger says, “I looked at my caddie and was like, Holy s---.”

At 8-under 136, Woods moved three clear of Colin Montgomerie, the surly Scot who was impressed, but not intimidated, by Woods’ play. Not yet, at least.

“The pressure is mounting now,” Montgomerie told reporters. “Things always get harder here on the weekend. I have more major-championship experience than he has. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Those dismissive comments made their way back to Woods, and what happened Saturday was that he overpowered the course (needing no more than a 9-iron for his seven birdies) and dusted Monty, 65-74. Woods led by nine, a shellacking so emphatic that it left little doubt about who would slip into the green jacket a day later.

“There was an aura about him that I witnessed that round of golf that I hadn’t seen before,” Montgomerie says. “Then I realized something was awry, something was different with this fellow.”

After the third round, Montgomerie memorably staggered into the media building and proclaimed the tournament over.

“All I have to say is one brief comment,” he started. “There is no chance. We’re all human beings here. There’s no chance humanly possible that Tiger is going to lose this tournament. No way.”

But what about Norman’s collapse, only a year ago?

“This is very different,” Montgomerie said. “Faldo’s not lying second, for a start. And Greg Norman’s not Tiger Woods.”

Monty wasn’t the only player waving the white flag.

Costantino Rocca rode shotgun in Sunday’s final pairing but conceded that he couldn’t catch Woods.

“It’s too far,” he said. “Maybe if I play nine holes [and turn in my score].”

Paul Stankowski held no illusions about making up a 10-shot deficit, either: “If I can make five, six, seven birdies early, like in the first three holes, then I definitely can put some heat on him.”

Sensing the magnitude of the moment, CBS came on the air early Sunday, with Woods and Rocca on the fifth hole. Lance Barrow, directing the network’s Masters coverage for the first time, instructed his crew to show all of Woods’ shots live and to walk with him as he crossed all of Augusta National’s historic landmarks. “If that’s all the golf we show today,” he said, “then that’s all the golf we’re going to show.”

The competition lacked suspense – Woods never led by fewer than eight – but the final round was no less captivating. It drew the highest rating ever for a golf telecast, with 14.1 percent of households tuning in, and produced two iconic highlights: Woods’ uppercut celebration and his emotional embrace with father Earl, still weak from triple-bypass surgery two months earlier, behind the 18th green. Tiger’s watershed victory was, as CBS’ Jim Nantz famously called, a “win for the ages.”

Says Montgomerie: “We weren’t ready – I don’t think the world was quite aware – of what was to transpire.”

Nearly 50 years to the day that Jackie Robinson shattered baseball’s color barrier, and with two dozen of the club’s black employees gathered outside the clubhouse, and with Elder following outside the ropes, Woods completed a masterpiece that was equal parts inspiring and demoralizing. Not only did his 18-under 270 total break Nicklaus’ Masters record, but his 12-stroke margin of victory was the largest in any major since 1862.

“I beat all the mortals,” says runner-up Tom Kite.

Even with a 43 1/2-inch steel-shafted driver, Woods led the field in driving distance – at 323 yards, he was 25 yards farther than the next-longest player – and bludgeoned the par 5s, playing them in 13 under for the week. Relying on a tip from his father and mental notes from his visit to the Golf Channel video library, he escaped without a three-putt on Augusta’s treacherous greens. And after that horrid start – the worst opening nine by a Masters winner, by two – he played his last 63 holes in 22 under.

“It was the start of all of us being in awe,” Love says.

“It was a clinic for all of us,” says Nick Price. “We were amazed. We knew that this was a whole new ballgame now.”

“Power and distance is always an advantage,” Duval says, “but we saw precision and short game and putting and imagination – we saw all of it folded into one young man. It was the combination of what we thought a golfer could be.”

Even the assembled media – increasingly skeptical of the Next Big Thing in sports – thought so, too.

“Woods Launches New Era” declared The Augusta Chronicle.

“The New Master” blasted the cover of the April 21, 1997, issue of Sports Illustrated.

“Woods Tears Up Augusta and Tears Down Barriers” wrote The New York Times.

In the winner’s news conference, Woods paid homage to the pioneers who had come before him – to Charlie Sifford and Ted Rhodes and Elder, who had driven over from Atlanta that Sunday and was in tears near Butler Cabin. “All night I was thinking about them,” Woods said, “what they’ve done for me and the game of golf. Coming up 18, I said a little prayer of thanks to those guys. Those guys are the ones who did it.”

After all of his obligations, Woods retired to his rental house with family and friends. After a while, attendees noticed that Woods was no longer amid the revelry. They found him alone in his room – passed out on his bed, with his red sweater and black slacks still on, clutching the green jacket like a blanket.

“That’s the image that remains in my mind of what that meant to him,” says close friend and former Stanford teammate Notah Begay III, “that he didn’t want to ever let go of that feeling because he has touched a place that no one has ever touched. The way that he did it, the way that he impacted our game, the way that he carried the game to new heights, I don’t know if we will see that for some time.”

Tiger Woods, '97 Masters (*= record) Score Overall Position
Round 1 2-under 70 2 under (70) T-4, 4 back
Round 2 6-under 66 8 under (136) 1st, 3 ahead
Round 3 7-under 65 15 under (201)* 1st, 9 ahead*
Round 4 3-under 69 18 under (270)* Won by 12*

MANY ASPECTS OF THE PGA Tour changed after the ’97 Masters, but initially there remained a sense that Woods did not yet belong. That was apparent when CNN aired a clip of off-color remarks made by fellow competitor Fuzzy Zoeller, in which he called Woods “that little boy” and urged him not to serve fried chicken and collard greens at the Champions Dinner the following year.

Vacationing in Cancun after the Masters, Woods didn’t respond for a few days, prolonging the controversy, and Zoeller lost endorsements and fans. (Woods also received flak for skipping a ceremony to honor Jackie Robinson at Shea Stadium.) Woods addressed the Zoeller situation in a statement to the press, not a phone call, calling the remarks “unfortunate” and “out of bounds.” They later cleared the air over lunch at Colonial.

It was the lone rift during an otherwise blissful period for the PGA Tour. Six weeks after the Masters drew the highest rating ever for a major, commissioner Tim Finchem met with his three network partners (NBC, CBS and ABC) to renew their four-year deal that would go into effect in 1999. Never had he enjoyed so much negotiating power.

Even though Woods would hold the No. 1 ranking for only 10 total weeks in ’97, he was the undisputed biggest star in the game. Tournament directors tried to entice him. Viewers tuned in to watch him. Whatever resentment existed toward Woods and his new celebrity soon dissipated, because his mere presence on Tour meant one thing for the rank and file: They were all about to become fabulously wealthy.

In 1996, Tour purses were a combined $71 million. Over the next decade, thanks in large part to Woods, who attracted more corporate sponsorships and sparked higher TV rights fees, Tour pros competed for nearly $279 million in 2008. (Viewed another way: In 1996, there were nine millionaires on the Tour's money list; a decade later, 93 players earned $1 million or more.) That would continue to grow, with the advent of the FedEx Cup and its $10 million end-of-season prize. In terms of per-year earnings, the best golfers were now more aligned with the stars in other sports.

“The Tour was the greatest thing in the world, the biggest stage I could ever imagine,” says Duval, who turned pro in 1993. “But only in the next decade did I understand that it could be so much bigger and more impactful.”

Adds Curtis Strange: “It changed overnight, where it hadn’t changed much the previous 30 or 40 years.”

Even more dramatic was the shifting perception of golfers as athletes. Tour pros used to be the castoffs from other sports – the guys who were too small or too fat or too slow. Fueled by his obsession with Navy SEALs, Woods popularized strength training and morphed from 1-iron-thin to a broad-shouldered, physical marvel. The ill-fitting polos and sweaters from the late ’90s were replaced by skin-tight garb that accentuated his muscular physique. Today’s Tour has caught up, and now it’s rare to stroll down the range and see a player who is out of shape, who doesn’t have veins protruding from his biceps or glutes that would make an alpine skier jealous.

In addition to his ripped appearance, Woods also oozed swagger and charisma, and his intense on-course displays – the fist pumps and the club twirls and the birdie stalks – shattered the paradigm of golf as a stuffy, gentlemanly pursuit and appealed to a younger generation that grew up watching other sports.

“When I started playing golf, back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, golf really wasn’t that cool,” O’Meara says. “It was cool to the country-club golfer, but not necessarily to the masses. Tiger brought golf to the masses, and all of a sudden made it cool to where parents started thinking about, 'hey, instead of having my child play baseball or football or basketball, maybe I’ll introduce my child into golf.' We saw this big boom of a younger generation.”

Says former Tour pro Arron Oberholser: “Tiger’s is the last generation that went through high school and got laughed at for playing golf.”

Though it’s likely all of that muscle mass on a brittle body helped expedite his decline, in the midst of that transformation Woods continued to play mesmerizing golf. He said after the ’97 Masters that he’d “gotten away with murder” and “from a ball-striking standpoint, I was playing better than I knew how.” And so, under the guidance of Harmon, Woods tore down his swing and started again. What they built produced the most remarkable stretch in golf history.

Beginning with the 1999 PGA, Woods won five of six majors, including a 15-shot blowout at the U.S. Open and the completion of the Tiger Slam (four consecutive majors won). From 1999-2007, he was astoundingly consistent, winning at least five tournaments in all but one season and making the cut in a record 142 consecutive events. Even after rebuilding his swing again, in the mid-2000s under Hank Haney, Woods added six more major titles and won a preposterous 33 percent of his starts. He kept a stranglehold on both the world ranking – spending 683 weeks at No. 1, more than twice the stay of Norman (331) – and his peers, as none of his so-called rivals captured more than four majors during his 12-year reign.

“If Tiger had his A-game, we felt like he was really hard to beat,” Love says. “The media and the fans thought we were giving up, but it wasn’t giving up. It was just reality.”

One place that Woods’ dominance slowed was Augusta National. Instead of owning 10 (or more) green jackets, as Nicklaus and Palmer forecasted, Woods’ closet has held only four, and none since 2005.

The calls to Tiger-proof Augusta began early, in ’97, after Woods rendered the once-mighty course obsolete by demolishing the par 5s. “It’ll be interesting to see what they do to their golf course,” Price said at the time. “They have to do something.”

And so prior to 2002, the club beefed up half of the holes with added length, then planted trees alongside the 11th and 15th fairways. They lengthened a few holes even more before the ’06 event – at 7,435 yards, the course is now 510 yards longer than in ’97 – as well as tightening some fairways and growing the first cut. Woods and many others agree that some of the excitement and creativity has been lost because of the course changes (and technological advancements), even though Jordan Spieth in 2015 matched Woods’ 18-under 270 total.

The spark that Woods’ breakthrough was supposed to give minorities fizzled out, too. In November 1997, the World Golf Federation established The First Tee to introduce the game to disadvantaged kids. Millions of children, particularly those in inner cities and rural areas, have been exposed to golf, but participation numbers remain low. It seems not even a global superstar like Woods could overcome some of society’s structural impediments, and the game is as homogenous as it’s ever been: In 1977, 12 black golfers played in a Tour event. Last year, there was only one (Harold Varner III).

“There are parents spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to send their kids to 10 to 12 tournaments throughout the year,” says Begay, “and not many people can afford to do that. It’s just not realistic. So I think the swell of interest was created, but it was never captured.”

AFTER 20 YEARS, AFTER the unmistakable start of the Tiger era, the game in many respects is unrecognizable.

Woods in ’97 was the only player in the OWGR top 10 under age 25. Today, he’d be one of four. 

He was the second-biggest hitter, at 294.8 yards per drive. Today, in an era of 460cc drivers and multi-layer balls, he’d rank 74th.  

He was the leading money winner, with $2.06 million in earnings. Last year, he’d rank 45th.

So, no, 20 years later, nothing is the same, including Woods himself.

Lost in the hysteria of the ’97 Masters was the sage advice that Palmer had offered Woods as he began his fishbowl existence. 

“One thing Tiger said to me was that the public won’t let him act like a 21-year-old man,” Palmer said that week. “Well, how many 21-year-old men are in the position that Tiger Woods is in? And I said, ‘Hey, that’s the price you must pay for the position you’re in, whether it be financially or as a champion. There has to be a penalty somewhere for all the nice things that happen to you.’”

Indeed, fame, scandal, hubris, injury – they all contributed to the downfall of a legend who, if he misses next week’s Masters for the third time in four years, will drop outside the top 750 in the world ranking.

The irony is impossible to ignore: The generation that Woods helped create with his transcendent Masters victory – the young stars who think and act like him, who chase his records and his standard for greatness, who have emerged A.T., After Tiger – is now one of his biggest obstacles in a return to relevance.

That competitive reality only underscores the event’s historical significance.

“You have to recognize it for what it was,” Duval says. “It was a big breaking of a barrier that any athlete can play this game if they put their mind to it. But it was also a pronouncement of a lot of expectations for him as a young person, and it was kind of like, Here I am. That’s a strong thing to do, but as you look back on it, it was also very telling of what he thought and where he was headed and what he believed he was going to do. That’s pretty freakin’ cool.”

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Fleetwood flawless en route to Abu Dhabi lead

By Will GrayJanuary 18, 2018, 2:06 pm

New year, same results for Tommy Fleetwood.

The reigning Race to Dubai champ picked up where he left off in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, carding a bogey-free 66 during which the Englishman found all 18 greens in regulation. At 6 under, he shares the lead with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and sits one shot clear of five other players.

"Very stress-free. Played really well from start to finish," Fleetwood said. "Felt like I did what you need to do around this golf course, which is drive it well, hit your irons solid. You can't really be too greedy a lot of the time, and then sort of my pace putting was really good. So basically just did what you need to do to get a good score around this golf course, and I got one."

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fleetwood shined in a marquee grouping that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, as he birdied three holes on each nine. This is his first worldwide start since a T-3 finish at the Hero World Challenge.

It was at this event a year ago that Fleetwood sparked a career campaign, edging Johnson and Pablo Larrazabal for the win. He added another win at the French Open in the summer to go along with a pair of runner-up results and a T-4 finish at the U.S. Open, all of which helped him capture the European Tour's season-long title.

Fleetwood's sudden success in Abu Dhabi serves as a microcosm for his career resurgence. Prior to last year's victory, he had missed the cut in four of his five other trips to this event.

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Sergio starts season with 66 in Singapore

By Associated PressJanuary 18, 2018, 12:56 pm

SINGAPORE – Sergio Garcia opened his season with a 5-under 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on Thursday in the first round of the weather-interrupted Singapore Open.

Playing his first tournament of the year, the Masters champion rebounded after making an early bogey to collect four birdies and an eagle at the Sentosa Golf Club.

He was later joined by American qualifier Kurt Kitayama in the clubhouse lead. Still on the course, Tirawat Kaewsiribandit was at 6 under through 16 holes when play was suspended for the day because of the threat of lightning.

Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, was at 5 under through 16 holes when he also had to stop his round because of the weather.

Of the players who did finish their opening rounds, only three were within two strokes of Garcia and Kitayama. One of them was Casey O'Toole, who aced the par-3 second with a 7-iron.

The 38-year-old Garcia dropped his only shot of the day on the par-4 15th, his sixth hole after teeing off on the back nine, when he missed the fairway and was unable to make par. But he made amends when he birdied the par-3 17th and then eagled the par-5 18th to go out in 33.

''I was 1 over after (the) seventh but it didn't feel like I was playing badly,'' said Garcia, who made birdies on each of the two par 5s and one of the par 3s on the second nine. ''But then I hit two greats in a row for holes 17 and 18. I got a birdie-eagle there, so that settled me a little bit and I could play solid in the back nine and it was a great round.''

Garcia made the shortlist for the Laureus Sports Awards in the Breakthrough of the Year category after claiming his first major at Augusta National last year and is hoping for more success this season.

He credits the Singapore Open as having played a part in toughening him up for his Masters win because he opted to start his 2017 campaign in the stifling humidity of Southeast Asia to prepare himself for the bigger tournaments ahead.

Although he finished tied for 11th in Singapore, Garcia won the Dubai Desert Classic the next week and was in peak form when he won the Masters two months later.

Kitayama only secured his place in the $1 million event on Monday by finishing at the top of the qualifying competition, but he made a strong start with birdies on three of his first five holes. The 25-year-old Thai was 6 under through 13 holes but spoiled his otherwise flawless round with a bogey on his last.

''I started with a birdie and I just let it roll from there. I had some good tee shots, which I think, is the biggest thing for this course,'' Kitayama said. ''I'm a little tired, but I'm hanging in there. Whenever I have time off, I'll try not to think too much about golf.''

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13-year-old beats DJ in closest-to-the-pin contest

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:26 pm

Dustin Johnson didn’t just get beat by Tommy Fleetwood and Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Even a 13-year-old got the best of the world No. 1.

Oscar Murphy teed off on the 177-yard 15th hole as part of the tournament’s Beat the Pro challenge during the opening round. The Northern Irishman, one of the HSBC’s Future Falcons, carved a 3-wood toward a back-right pin, about 25 feet away, closer than both Johnson and Fleetwood.

“An unbelievable shot,” Fleetwood said afterward, “and me and Rory both said, ‘We don’t have that in our locker.’”

Johnson still made par on the hole, but he mixed four birdies with four bogeys Thursday for an even-par 72 that left him six shots back of Fleetwood and Hideto Tanihara after the opening round.

Johnson, who tied for second here a year ago, is coming off a dominant performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where he won by eight shots to strengthen his lead atop the world rankings. 

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson, and Hideto Tanihara.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in more than three months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014.