Tiger Woods went all Nostradamus-y earlier this week when he predicted that his good pal and loyal defender Rory McIlroy would win an official tournament this year. While there’s a whole lotta golf left to play at the WGC-HSBC Champions event in China, the world’s former No. 1 is making the current top guy look good by cruising to his first outright lead, a two-shot advantage over Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Jamie Donaldson, since he won the DP World Championship in Dubai last November.
"He's starting to put together a few good rounds, now he just has to make a few more putts," Woods said after losing an 18-hole exhibition match to the two-time world champion on Monday. "I can definitely see him winning sometime this year because his game has come around."
McIlroy, winless in 2013, has been telling us for some time that his game was back on track. At least for Thursday’s nearly flawless opening score of 7-under 65, the 62nd-ranked player in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai looked to make good on a promise to make it back into the top 60 and qualify for the World Tour Championship finale.
"It's a great start. It's only one round of golf," McIlroy, who said Wednesday he had a better chance of winning in Shanghai than failing to make it to Dubai, told reporters. "But it's definitely the way I wanted and needed to start this week, keeping in mind that I obviously want to play myself into Dubai and try to pick up my first win of the season, as well."
While all signs on Thursday pointed to a McIlroy resurgence, Phil Mickelson was headed in the opposite direction. The reigning British Open champion, playing directly behind McIlroy, had pulled even with the Ulsterman after canning his sixth birdie on the par-4 seventh (his 16th hole of the day).
McIlroy answered with a seven-foot birdie putt on the par-5 eighth, which was to be his challenger’s undoing.
Mickelson watched his third shot to the eighth green fall short of the hole and spin back down a slope into the hazard in front. He took a drop and a penalty shot, only to splash another ball from the drop zone.
One shot and two putts later, and Phil the Thrill put up a very crooked quadruple-bogey 9, only to then rinse his approach to the par-4 ninth and limp in with a bogey and a first-round 71.
As for McIlroy, who won five times worldwide in 2012, including his second major championship, his W over Woods may not have helped him in the world rankings (he entered the week at No. 6) or clinch a ticket to Dubai just yet. But, like Tiger’s unofficial victory at the 2011 Chevron World Challenge, which ended a two-year winless drought for the 14-time major champ, it likely did wonders for his self-esteem.
"It's obviously different playing in an environment like that [Monday’s meaningless "Match at Mission Hills"] and coming out here trying to win this golf tournament, even though I did hold off Tiger Woods down the stretch," McIlroy said with a laugh. "You know, a little bit of confidence from Monday, of course, but I think it was these two previous weeks [a T2 at the Kolon Korea Open and a T27 at last week’s BMW Masters], just getting back into competitive play and learning what I needed to do to improve and sort of work on those things coming into this week."
Thursday, he put that new-found swagger into play.
"I came here yesterday and talked about how I like this golf course and how I felt like it set up well for me," McIlroy said. "It felt good to be out there and be in control of my golf ball. I gave myself a lot of looks for birdies."
If all goes well in the next three rounds, McIlroy can put a rather miserable year behind him.
"It's obviously frustrating when you've had a couple of seasons previously where you have had success, and not being able to emulate that; there's times where you definitely get frustrated," said McIlroy, who’s put his share of mangled golf clubs in the trash bin this year. "I wouldn't say that I was restless in terms of trying to get a win this season, because I think that the best way to approach it is to stay patient and not to force the issue too much."
McIlroy, whose pre-tourney comments about the whole Tiger-Brandel Chamblee brouhaha may have had something to do with the Golf Channel analyst’s on-air semi-apology on Wednesday night, reiterated his support for his Nike stablemate.
"I'll let the Golf Channel executives think what the right way is. That's not up to me. But I just think that he was out of line and you know, something should be done about it," said McIlroy, who added he had no personal quarrel with the network.
"No, nothing ‑‑ definitely not. There's nothing to do with the Golf Channel," he said. "That's who Brandel is employed by, and they are the ones that can deal with it."