Rory McIlroy had to know this was coming.
Long before his new sugar daddy officially announced that No. 1 had signed a multimillion-dollar contract requiring him to sport nothing but Nike from head to toe and throughout his golf bag, skeptics had lined up to question the switch to the swoosh. Exactly one sloppy round into the 2013 season, McIlroy was in the position of defending his move from Titleist, whose equipment he had used since turning pro in 2007, to a new brand.
The two-time major champ, who struggled on Thursday to an opening-round 3-over 75 alongside a scuffling Tiger Woods (even-par 72) at the Abu Dhabi Championship, insisted afterward that his scratchy play was not about the sticks.
“The problems I had off the tee were more to do with the swing than the clubs,” McIlroy told the Daily Mail. “I was a little bit rusty, but I've got here and then four weeks off to work hard on my game. My main concern now is to do some work and try to get ready for the second round and make the weekend.”
McIlroy was almost everywhere but the fairway (five of 14 fairways off the tee in regulation) and struggled to find the putting surfaces (12 of 18 greens). He even drove one ball out of bounds and seemed totally off his game -- a game that he seemed to have mastered by the end of 2012.
Now, between a long layoff and breaking in an entire new set of clubs since last season -- when he won five times worldwide, notched his second major championship, and earned money titles on both the PGA and European Tours -- McIlroy was in danger of missing the first cut of his first start.
Despite all that, the 23-year-old refused to blame his woes on his gear, though he conceded the learning curve might be steeper than he had believed.
“It was the first time I had used the new clubs with a scorecard in my hands, so it was a case of learning a few things,' McIlroy said. “On the range you can just wheel away and everything is fine but it is a little different on the course.”
Indeed, McIlroy acknowledged that he was a tad nervous to take off the training wheels after a lengthy vacation.
“Yeah, a bit of rust for sure. Not playing any competitive golf for eight weeks,” he said to AFP. “I guess when you’re going out with new stuff, you’re always going to be a little bit anxious about hitting it close like you’ve done on the range and today that wasn’t quite the case. Hopefully I can do that tomorrow.”
McIlroy was headed to the practice area with an industrial-sized iron to smooth out the kinks and press on toward a Saturday tee time.
“I was really happy with the way the ball is in the wind. Really happy with the irons, the wedge play. I wasn’t very comfortable off the tee, but just because I didn’t feel like I was swinging it that well,” he said. “It wasn’t quite what I wanted, but it’s a case of going and working a little bit on the range this afternoon and hopefully going out tomorrow and playing a little bit better and making the weekend.”