ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Rory McIlroy opened his season by outplaying Tiger Woods in the first round of the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, shooting a 5-under 67 Thursday for a share of the lead.
Woods shot a 70 in a threesome with McIlroy and top-ranked Luke Donald, who finished with a 71. Robert Karlsson tied for the lead while Gareth Maybin, Richard Finch and Jean-Baptiste Gonnet were one stroke back.
Woods played bogey-free golf that produced few momentous shots and two birdies. He missed several birdie chances, including a 6-footer on his ninth, the 18th hole.
“It was a good ball-striking round,” Woods said. “I had a hard time reading the greens out there. The greens were pretty grainy and I just had a hard time getting a feel for it. Toward the end I hit some pretty good putts, but overall I got fooled a lot on my reads.”
McIlroy, the U.S. Open champion who has had three top-5 finishes in Abu Dhabi, made three birdies on his first four holes but erratic driving led to two bogeys on the next four. He steadied himself with three birdies on his back nine, including a chip-in on No. 8 from just off the green.
“It’s a nice way to start the competitive season, I suppose,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t feel like I played that good. I definitely didn’t strike the ball as good as I have been the last couple of weeks. I think it’s just because your first competitive round of the season, card in your hand, you can get a little bit tentative or a little apprehensive.”
Woods also struggled with his approaches shots at the National Course at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, which was playing much tougher than in the past with narrower fairways and thicker rough. That resulted in many 25- and 30-footers he couldn’t sink.
Sergio Garcia (71) and Jose Manuel Lara (70) each had hole-in-ones on the par-3 12th. KJ Choi, Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington joined the group at 71. Second-ranked Lee Westwood (72) and defending champion Martin Kaymer (77) got off to poor starts and never challenged.
McIlroy calls Woods a friend and was chatting with his playing partner for much of the day. He said he didn’t take much satisfaction from beating him in the first round.
“If it was the last day of the tournament and you’re both going in there with a chance to win, I would take a lot of pride from that, obviously,” said the 22-year-old Northern Irishman.
“But the first day of a tournament is a little different,” he said. “You’re just going out there and playing and seeing what you can do. But, hopefully, I can get myself into position where I do play with him on a Sunday and see how I get on.”
After a seven-week layoff, Woods said he’s fitter than he has been in years. He’s coming off a victory at the Chevron World Challenge last month that ended a two-year title drought.
With the win, Woods moved to 25th in the world after briefly falling outside the top 50 last year. Before the victory, Woods finished third at the Australian Open and delivered the clinching point for the American team in the Presidents Cup.
“It felt the same as it had from Oz to the World Challenge to here,” Woods said of his game. “I controlled my ball all day and just had a hard time getting a feel for these greens. They are grainy enough where I just didn’t quite read them right, and I hit them good, and then the grain would take it, not take it. It was just difficult.”