Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy get off to shaky starts in Abu Dhabi

Andrew Redington

Let the finger-wagging begin: Rory McIlroy struggles out of the gate with his shiny new Nike clubs.

The fledgling Tiger Woods-Rory McIlroy rivalry is taking on the character of those one-sided Yankees-Red Sox clashes of pre-2004: after Thursday’s first round of the Abu Dhabi Championship, the long-time heavyweight maintained his supremacy in one-on-one match-ups to take a commanding 6-2-1 record into Friday’s second round.

Which is not to say that Woods, who trails his Swoosh brother in the world golf rankings by one slot, was at his best, scuffling to an even-par 72. But that hefty megabucks contract may have gotten in McIlroy's way, as No. 1 struggled mightily with his new sticks on the way to a 75. He found 12 of 18 greens in regulation, only five of 14 fairways, and needed 31 putts with his relatively unfamiliar Nike Method flat stick.

Woods’ stats weren’t much more impressive, with five of 14 fairways and 10 greens in regulation. His 29 putts included a three-jack on his last hole, the ninth. The two were neck-and-neck in driving distance -- 289 yards off the tee

For Woods, one of those fairways and greens missed was on the 13th -- his fourth hole of the day -- when a wayward tee shot left forced him to turn around, Phil Mickelson southpaw-style, and nudge his ball a few feet from behind a bush into the surrounding waste bunker. His 20-foot par putt just missed.

After making his third birdie of the day on the 18th, Woods soon found more trouble. He topped his tee shot on the par-4 first hole into the left rough and went on to make bogey. On the par-4 third, he was able to save par after pulling another drive into another sandy waste area, nicking a fern on his second shot, and finding the right green-side bunker.

Still, the world’s second-best golfer was not displeased with his efforts.

"It's a good score in these conditions, period," Woods said afterward. "Just trying to shoot under par somehow and didn't quite do it. I made a mistake at the last, but it's tough out there. These fairways are tiny to hit and it seems like every hole is a cross-wind hole."

McIlroy had a rougher start to his 2013 season, which -- with a T84 position, eight shots back of co-leaders Jamie Donaldson and Justin Rose -- could end after only two days.

For sure, the two-time world champ had a bit of work to do to climb back into the game following a busy week that included a star-spangled welcome to the Nike galaxy, celebration of his pal Paul McGinley’s newly minted Ryder Cup captaincy, and an opening round that featured two double bogeys on the scorecard.

McIlroy may need some time to make nice with his Nike Covert driver, with an errant shot long and right on the par-3 15th and a bad drive on the third landing out of bounds pretty much summing up his day.

“I feel like I was just a little bit rusty,” McIlroy, no doubt fanning the flames of critics ready to pounce on the two-time major champ for switching clubs, told the Telegraph. "I didn't drive the ball particularly well, which you need to around here because the rough is very thick, and I didn't hole any putts...and I didn't putt well so I'll have to work on that this afternoon.”

Following his round, Woods found himself back in TMZ territory, with a reporter asking him about a National Enquirer story linking him with his ex-wife Elin Nordegren.

According to the tabloid (which broke the news about Woods’ extra-marital affairs back in 2009), Woods has been wooing Nordegren, going so far as offering the mother of his two children a $200 million pre-nuptial agreement to remarry him.

“I am not going to comment on my private life,” Woods said.

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