It was to prove a final light-hearted moment for Rory McIlroy.
On the middle of the 8th fairway, whence he had tossed a three-iron into water during a fit of pique last year, he laughed when going halfway towards re-enacting the scene. This time, putter was in hand; McIlroy had reached the green of the par five, his final hole, in two.
The Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde aspect of McIlroy’s year to date was to follow. He three-putted, dumped a tee-shot into water when attacking a tricky, wind-affected pin on the short 9th and signed for a 71 which did not really replicate much of McIlroy’s afternoon at all. Welcome to his 2016.
A new putting grip, with hands reversed, did not bring McIlroy the desired results. He used that club 33 times. McIlroy had promised to stick with this approach regardless of the first-round outcome at the WGC-Cadillac Championship and his stroke did look perfectly strong, but a frustration over conversion-to-chance ratio will only be natural. The trick will be in not letting that resonate fully.
“It’s tiny margins,” McIlroy said of his finish. “When you’re playing well you’re sharp and you’re really on your game, you don’t make those mistakes. Right now, I’m struggling with that part of the game. I just need to tidy it up.”
And the putting grip? “It felt good. If I had not have done what I did at the last there, I would have been coming off the golf course pretty happy.”
Jordan Spieth thereby claimed what bragging rights are available in such company, with McIlroy and Jason Day as playing partners. His 69 rather represented what makes the reigning Masters and US Open champion so formidable, given the regular whines and wails which accompanied Spieth’s round. He still emerged three-under par with four fewer putts than McIlroy, not for the first time, a notable statistic.
“I would certainly sign up right now for three more rounds with the same score,” Spieth admitted. “I think we did a great job approaching this course like a major championship, giving it some respect, taking our medicine when we needed to and waiting for chances.”
Day appears to be a man still looking for fresh impetus following the life-changing experiences not only of a maiden major success – at the US PGA Championship last August – but the birth of his second child. The Australian’s 72 was hardly the stuff of disaster but he has the talent to be doing more, particularly on a course such as this which suits his wonderful driving talent. “Rory played beautifully,” said Day. “He is going to bounce back.”
Adam Scott, Day’s compatriot, sits better off at four-under. Scott was triumphant at the Honda Classic last Sunday. “I’ve tried to really take it easy for a few days,” he said. “Even though I feel good, the last couple of weeks has taken a lot out of me, so I’m trying to conserve energy.
“There’s a huge sense of satisfaction for me in winning last week and it would be pretty easy to go and sit at home and feel good myself. But this is such a huge event and I’m playing so well.”
This emergence of young blood seems to have further stirred the competitive juices of Phil Mickelson. The 45-year-old won this event back in 2009 and has aspirations of a repeat performance if an opening round of 67 is anything to go by. In 19 rounds this season, Mickelson has shot better than 70 a dozen times. Nine of those have been 68 or lower; a tally he only reached in mid-May during 2015. “The ball, the scorecard, they don’t know my age,” Mickelson smiled.
Danny Willett’s prominence is the further consequence of consistency. His recent win at the Dubai Desert Classic endorsed his status as the coming man of British golf. He signed for a 68 which at least had the impact of further displaying his talents to a broader audience.
The Yorkshireman has finished inside the top three in two of his last three WGC appearances. “It was a good, solid day,” he said. “I hit 16 greens, had 30 putts; you can’t really ask for much more around this golf course. Obviously I have started the season pretty well, fourth down in Sun City and winning in Dubai. This is only my fifth tournament of the year so it’s nice to get a few good numbers on the board.”
Best of the day were Scott Piercy of the US on six-under and later matched by Marcus Fraser, though the Australian was looking good for the outright lead on the 18th only to find water and make bogey. Jamie Donaldson continued his fond alliance with Doral courtesy of a 70 while Jason Dufner’s 68 included putts holed from 17ft, 19ft, 21ft, 35ft and 47ft. Maybe McIlroy should have a word with him.
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