ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – You’ve seen it by now. According to YouTube everyone in the free world has. That DreamWorks-like production that debuted this week featuring world Nos. 1 and 2 Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods trading shots and barbs on an undisclosed practice tee.
“You ever have one of those days when you just can’t miss?” the affable Ulsterman asked in the glossy new Nike Golf advertisement dubbed “No Cup is Safe.”
On Thursday at a windswept Abu Dhabi Golf Club, no scorecard was safe and it was one of those days when life went left where art powered ahead.
At the risk of jumping on the apologist bandwagon a tad early, the scrutiny, if not the sinister desert wind, was always going to be waiting for McIlroy when he walked off the ninth green (his 18th of the day) following a 3-over 75, and into the hungry arms of the media.
Unfair as it all is, anything short of a course record and touchdown head start over the field at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship was going to be labeled a failure. It is the unsavory ground where lucrative endorsement deals meet unrealistic expectations and to McIlroy’s credit he fielded every leading question with characteristic calm and charisma.
“He never had to worry about what was going to happen out there (on the golf course),” said one longtime European Tour observer, “it was here (the crowded interview area) where he had to prepare himself. I really feel for him.”
Before we start a campaign to save McIlroy from those who demand instant analysis, let’s put Day 1 in perspective. For those scoring at home, he hit six of 14 fairways, 13 of 18 greens in regulation and needed 31 putts, leaving him him tied for 89th when he walked off the golf course.
If that doesn’t exactly sound like the card of a world No. 1, consider that his cast mate in that Nike commercial hit one fewer fairway, three fewer greens in regulation and came in with two fewer putts, the approximant margin of error so to speak.
While the gathered scribes wanted to talk about the new driver, and the Ulsterman’s inability to control his golf ball into a crosswind, the final analysis suggests it was a predictable lack of touch on the greens that cost McIlroy on Thursday.
Not that the Northern Irishman had much interest in making excuses.
“When you go out and have some new stuff you can be a little anxious,” he said.
The truth is, the entire round had a preseason feel to it. Sloppy would best describe the play of the game’s top two players – as an aside, whoever had Martin Kaymer as the marquee group’s low ball on Day 1, please proceed to the collection window.
The round included a left-handed punch out by Woods at No. 13, a painful reload for McIlroy at the third after hitting his tee shot into a car park and more shots from the desert than one would imagine even here in the Middle East.
“This is certainly a round where guys can lose their score,” said Woods, who signed for an even-par 72 after three-putting the last from 40 feet.
On a day of firsts, Woods carded his first bogey of the New Year at his fourth hole, McIlroy signed for one of two double bogeys just five holes into the round and hit his shot into the par-5 18th hole so far left they probably found the ball in someone's cocktail.
Little surprise then that the first question he fielded had to do with the 14 new tools he has in the bag following Monday’s much-anticipated announcement that he would be joining the Swoosh team.
“I’m thinking it’s the swing more than the clubs,” he said before admitting, “the first round with new equipment and the scorecard in my hand, it was a good day to learn something.”
So what did the 23-year-old glean from his opening effort? That he was as rusty as a 10-year-old sand wedge and may need some time to feel comfortable with a staff bag full of new implements. Predictable for sure, but hardly preventable.
Let’s don’t forget, it took Woods the better part of a decade to work his way into a full bag of Nike clubs. By comparison, McIlroy is learning on the fly.
The most telling moment in McIlroy’s postmortem came when he confirmed that he felt comfortable cutting his driver up against a right-to-left crosswind but still has some work to do with his draw when the breeze was out of the right.
But that’s nothing new (see Masters, 2011). As Lee Westwood famously pointed out, the Ulsterman can get a little quick with the driver and as a cold morning turned to a breezy afternoon that left shot stung him, like it did at the third hole when his tee shot ricocheted off a palm tree and into the G Lot.
“With my old equipment I was afraid to release (the club) because of the left shot, but that’s not an issue now,” he explained.
Late last year as news spread of McIlroy’s impending jump to Nike many cautioned that such a wholesale change could slow his meteoric rise. On Thursday those fears became reality, but – as is normally the case – McIlroy proved to be the calmest head in the room.
“I’ll go to the range and work on it. It will be fine,” McIlroy said with a signature shrug.
Despite the predictable rush to judgment, for the man behind all those new Nike sticks, Thursday’s opening act was just one of those days.