DORAL, Fla. – Tiger Woods was on his game, and so were most of the world best golfers Thursday in the Cadillac Championship.
Except for the world’s No. 1 player.
Woods made nine birdies on the Blue Monster at Doral for a 6-under-par 66 that put him in a five-way share of the lead with Masters champion Bubba Watson, former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia and Freddie Jacobson.
This World Golf Championship lived up to its name with Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan among those one shot behind.
But it was another rough day for Rory McIlroy.
He hit only three fairways and made six bogeys that kept him at par or worse on a perfect day for scoring. Despite making a 15-foot eagle putt on the par-5 first hole, and lacing a 5-iron over the water for another eagle attempt on the par-5 eighth that narrowly missed, the best he could manage was a 73.
McIlroy has yet to break par this year.
“It was a bit of a struggle, to be honest,” McIlroy said to Sky Sports. “Hit some good shots. Hit some not-so-good shots. As I’ve been saying all week, this is a work in progress and I’m working at it and I’m staying patient.”
He declined to speak to reporters, grabbing a quick lunch and smiling at screaming fans who wanted his autograph as he headed to the practice range.
McIlroy played alongside Woods and Luke Donald – Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the world – and while this essentially is a home game for Woods having won three times at Doral, the occasional shouts of “You’re the real No. 1, Tiger” rang true.
Coming off a pedestrian performance a week ago at the Honda Classic, Woods looked sharp in most aspects of his game, except for a few lapses with his chipping. He wasted two early birdies with a three-putt bogey on the 13th hole and a delicate flop shot that he flubbed on the 14th, leading to another bogey. His chip up the slope on the third didn’t reach the green for another bogey.
That’s all that was wrong.
He holed two long birdie putts, including a sliding, slippery putt from about 40 feet on the par-3 fourth hole, and missed four reasonable chances inside 15 feet. His final birdie was on the par-5 eighth, when he had to lay up from a fairway bunker and hit a wedge that stopped 2 feet from the hole.
“It was certainly a day that could have been a little lower,” said Woods, who was selected for random drug testing after his round.
Just about everyone could say that in these conditions.
Garcia and McDowell were in the same group. Not only did they have bogey-free rounds, both birdied the same four holes. Jacobson made two eagles in a span of three holes, both times hitting a 5-wood onto the green to just over 12 feet.
Watson played in the group with Mickelson and Stricker, and they were a collective 16-under par.
Stricker had a chance to tie for the lead except he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the final hole.
Mickelson, as usual, kept it entertaining. He pulled his tee shot on the 17th hole and his ball stopped rolling after it traveled some 450 yards. He purposely took a free drop on the cart path to avoid the rough, and chipped that to about 5 feet for birdie.
“You hit the ball in as much trouble as I do off the tee, you learn to hit those kinds of shots and have enough practice at it,” he said. “I knew what was going to happen.”
Woods atop the leaderboard is enough to create enough buzz to drown out the jetliners over Doral as they approach Miami International Airport. On this day, there was just as much curiosity about the 23-year-old McIlroy and the state of his game, not to mention what’s going on inside his head.
The pressure of changing equipment and backing up a big year that made him No. 1 in the world got the best of him last week at the Honda Classic, when he walked off the course without finishing his ninth hole of the second round.
McIlroy apologized during a press conference Wednesday, said it would never happen again and wanted to get back to being happy on the golf course. There weren’t many smiles, though he often chatted with Woods as they walked down the fairway.
He didn’t hit a fairway on the front nine (he started on No. 10), though two of those shots were in the first cut and led to birdie. But as much time as he has spent trying to rediscover that easy, balanced swing, it was clear he has neglected his short game. On the second hole, he had an 80-foot putt that he left 20 feet short.
“It was nice to sneak in a couple birdies on the last three holes and make it look somewhat respectable, even though everyone seems to be going pretty low out there today,” McIlroy said.
Woods played two rounds with him at Abu Dhabi to start the year, and they were frequent playing partners during the FedEx Cup playoffs last year. Woods said McIlroy looked “just a little bit defensive” with his swing.
“That happens, and we have all gone through stretches like this,” Woods said. “It happens, and it happened to him last year in the middle of the year, and ended up all right at the end of the year. When you play golf for a very long time, you’re going to have spells like this. You can’t play well every week, even though you try. You’re going to have ups and downs, and just got to battle through it.”
For everyone else, it wasn’t much of a battle in the opening round with a gentle breeze and warm sunshine. The fairways were firm and running fast, allowing the Blue Monster to play shorter. The average score was 70.8, and only 16 players in the 65-man field were over par.
“This course is playing pretty firm, so if you hit it in the fairway, it’s not going to be a ton of long shots,” Jacobson said. “Tough thing is if you’re in the rough, you don’t get any control on the ball from this grass. It makes it really difficult to stop the ball, and if you miss the green, it’s pretty tricky around here.”