After watching heavy, gusting winds push his 2-iron right and into trouble, McIlroy bravely forced his way into the thick, native vegetation at PGA National, looking for his ball in places only snakes and possums get comfortable. He ended up having to jog all the way back to the tee box to re-tee.
A double bogey wasn’t exactly the way the world No. 1 envisioned starting the Tour season.
“The conditions, obviously, were very tricky from the start,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy made another double bogey at the fifth hole, pulling his tee shot there into a pond.
In the end, though, McIlroy managed a smile after closing with a pair of birdies to shoot a 3-over-par 73.
“I feel like I salvaged something out of the round the last couple holes,” McIlroy said. “It was just a day to keep trying, not to give up, and know that anything around level or 1 or 2 over par still isn't out of it.”
Stepping up to the 16th tee, McIlroy was tied for 104th. With his little rally at the end, he walked away tied for 79th, eight shots off the lead.
“Wasn't quite what I wanted, but, hopefully, tomorrow morning we get calmer conditions and we're able to give ourselves a few more opportunities and make some birdies,” McIlroy said.
The winds were up right from day’s start, but they were toughest in the afternoon, with gusts up to 34 mph. Scores were on average more than a full shot higher in the afternoon.
McIlroy’s 73 was the low round of the group. Johnson shot 77 and Koepka 78.
At one point, the threesome was collectively 20 over par.
“It was tough,” McIlroy said. “When nothing's going your way, and you don't really have anything to feed off, you don't see many good shots, and we're all struggling, it was a grind out there. We'll all go home and put our feet up tonight and get ready for tomorrow.”
With winds even affecting putts, McIlroy wasn’t beating himself up after the round.
“Not at all,” he said. “I'm coming off a three-week break, and tough conditions to come back out in. I knew that my game is there. Today wasn't, obviously, what I wanted to start with, but you know, if I can get it into red numbers tomorrow, I'm right back in the tournament.”
McIlroy is making his first start since winning the European Tour’s Dubai Desert Classic almost a month ago. He teed it up this week on a tear that extends back into last summer, when he won the British Open, WGC-Bridgestone and PGA Championship in consecutive starts. He has a victory and four second-place finishes in his last five starts.
There was something else McIlroy found to be upbeat about. His 73 was a shot better than he posted in the final round last year, when he couldn’t protect a 54-hole lead and lost in a playoff.
“So it’s a little bit of an accomplishment,” McIlroy cracked.
McIlroy won the Honda Classic three years ago, holding off a Sunday charge by Tiger Woods.
About that rough start Thursday, McIlroy said the wind fooled him. He wasn’t alone. Johnson also hit his opening tee shot over in the thick brush but was able to chip out.
“I felt like the wind was more into us, but once the ball, even Dustin's ball, once it got out there, the wind just took it to the right,” McIlroy said. “I was just trying to play a normal sort of straight shot there.”
Nothing was going straight in Thursday’s winds, until they started dying down near day’s end. McIlroy took advantage when they did late. He hit a 5-iron to 50 feet at the last hole.
“Two-putt and get out of there,” McIlroy said.