DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Sometime between last year’s chaos and Thursday’s chef-d'oeuvre the planets aligned, the cosmic cylinders tumbled into place and sanity prevailed.
The Ulsterman had just been ushered in as Nike Golf’s newest world beater and appeared poised to finally go head-to-head with golf’s alpha male in a meaningful way. At the time, McIlroy was No. 1 in the world and Woods was in full rebound mode following a three-win season in 2012.
The letdown was palpable. McIlroy signed for a pair of 75s and watched the rest of the tournament from his couch, while Woods was tagged for an illegal drop on Friday and was on the next flight back Stateside.
That difficult day seemed a lifetime away on Thursday when Woods and McIlroy set out early at the Dubai Desert Classic. Woods birdied his first hole – the dynamic duo started on the 10th – McIlroy poured in three consecutive birdies starting at the 12th hole and the two briefly shared the lead when Woods birdied the 15th hole.
McIlroy would pull away from Woods, and everyone else, with a closing-nine of 31 for a two-stroke lead, but if the world No. 1 wasn’t happy with his opening 68 he wasn’t letting on.
“Overall it was a pretty good score. Maybe could have gotten two more out of it,” Woods said. “After going 0-for-12 on birdies on the par 5s last week (at the Farmers Insurance Open), it was actually nice to make one on the first hole, right out of the gate.”
Considering how much Woods struggled to put his driver in the fairway on a warm and sunny day, his 4-under-par card was a testament to a short game that was showing no signs of early-season rust.
Woods connected with just two fairways out of the eight times he hit driver, but that was about the only thing Thursday’s round had in common with his Saturday outing at Torrey Pines, when he signed for a 79 and missed his first 54-hole cut on the PGA Tour.
Twenty-five putts and a healthy dose of game management added up to his 68 and a tie for fifth as he made his way to the practice tee for an extracurricular session.
“It’s my old pattern again. With my last coach it was a push block,” said Woods, who played from the desert left of the fairway three times through his first seven holes.
“We tried to get out of that and go to a cut. It’s harder to aim right knowing that I’ve got to cut it. Last year all my misses were in the left rough. But they were all straight balls. It was dead straight because I aimed it there. Trying to aim down the right side of the fairway is a little harder.”
If Woods’ opening round was of the “about what it should have been” variety, McIlroy’s 9-under 63 was a work of art. He never came close to making a bogey, drove the ball with confident abandon (12 of 14 fairways) and rolled in an eagle putt at the third hole to move two clear.
Last year in Abu Dhabi he was signing for 75s. On Thursday he was considering what it would take to shoot 59.
“When I eagled (No.) 3 and that got me to 8 under par, I guess I had six holes left and needed five birdies for the magical number,” he smiled. “I didn’t birdie the par 3 (fourth) so then I wanted to shoot 62. I shot 62 last week in a casual round. So I wanted to try and shoot two 62s in one week.”
McIlroy’s comeback has been almost as distinct as his collapse. He finished tied for fifth in Dubai late last year at the DP World Tour Championship, won the Australian Open in a shootout with Adam Scott to close the season and began 2014 in Abu Dhabi with a runner-up showing.
For both players, Day 1 in Dubai was a dramatic contrast to last year’s troubles down the road in Abu Dhabi. By comparison, Thursday seemed effortless. But there are few in the game who know better than Woods and McIlroy that’s not the case.
“I don’t think it’s ever easy,” McIlroy said. “It can feel easier than it has been in the past, but you still have to work hard. It may feel easy and these scores may look somewhat routine out there, but there’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes.”
Maybe the only real difference between last year’s early exit and Thursday’s rounds is that Abu Dhabi just looked like work.