Tiger Woods rebounded nicely from his implosion in San Diego Saturday, but the bigger story coming out of Thursday's first round at the Dubai Desert Classic may be the return of Rory McIlroy. The Nike stablemates were out together late Wednesday night in the U.S., and young Rory appears to have regained his form following the disastrous run in 2013.
McIlroy was in complete control from start to finish, lighting up an Emirates Golf Course for a 9-under 63 and two-shot lead. Woods and McIlroy went off the back side, and both posted a string of birdies early to make the turn on the first page of the leaderboard. Rory distanced himself on one particular nine-hole stretch from No. 12 through No. 3, which he played at 8-under and capped with perhaps his most impressive hole. The third is gettable par-5, and Rory got it with a perfect tee-to-green eagle. While Tiger was futzing around for a wasted par, Rory rolled in his moderate-length putt to convert the eagle, and it was clear around 1 a.m. ET that the Eastern U.S. would wake to to McIlroy at the top of the leaderboard.
Holy moly, McIlroy looks as good as he ever has. Eagles 12th hole to take outright lead at 8 under through 12. Course record is 61, by Els.— Steve Elling (@EllingYelling) January 30, 2014
This return to form started at the end of last season, when McIlroy improved during a string of events in the far east. He then edged out a streaking Adam Scott on his home turf, making a birdie at the 18th to win the Australian Open and get on the board in 2013. Rory has said his game is coming back from the "lost" state it was in for most of last year, and he's looked good so far through five 2014 rounds in the Middle East. He would have won two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi if it were not for a silly two-stroke penalty for not taking full relief. He called it a "stupid" rule but his play over the course of the weekend was the bigger takeaway, not the penalty and 2nd place result.
Last night was about as good as McIlroy can look, and it appears he's found it with his Nike sticks. It's going to be a huge season for the 24-year old two-time major winner.
Five shots back of McIlroy at 4-under is Woods, who also made his tour through Emirates Golf Club without a bogey. It was a welcome sight for Woods, who had seven straight bogeys (or worse) to fall below the 54-hole cut line in a stunning turn at Torrey Pines. But the 4-under round of 68 was a grind for the world No. 1, in contrast to the smooth sailing of McIlroy.
The encouraging sign for Woods is that he found his short game to make up for repeated wildness off the tee and with his irons. It was that short game -- moderate wedge shots, sand shots, chips, and putts -- that was oddly deficient in San Diego. Tiger scrambled from missing half his fairways and hitting only 10 of 18 GIR with the work around the green. He was a bit open about the current issues he's having with his swing, speaking with international TV and making a direct reference to Hank Haney and the old patterns he's dealing with:
It's my old patterning. Because when I was with my last coach, it was always 'Aim left, push block.' We tried to get out of that and tried to go to a cut. Now, it's just harder to aim right knowing that I got to cut it. Last year, all my misses were left rough but they were all straight balls.
An example from Thursday's round, via Golf Channel's Morning Drive:
The left miss is not really an unknown problem for anyone, who is everyone, observing Woods' game. And it's nice for Tiger to be pretty candid about it after the round, referencing the coach who said just this week that his former pupil has worked out too much and gotten too jacked.
The 68 on his scorecard was posted with a bit of smoke and mirrors, but he'll take it after last week at Torrey. The way his playing partner is rolling, however, it might not matter whether Woods figures it out and goes even lower over the remaining three days in Dubai.