ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — A new era began on Thursday for Nike Golf, with the unveiling of a charismatic young star who has the chance to elevate the sport, to say nothing of the company's stock price.
Yes, Thorbjorn Olesen stole the show of the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. The stylish 23-year-old from Denmark shot a 68 in tough conditions to grab a piece of third place, one stroke behind co-leaders Justin Rose and Jamie Donaldson, who pronounced himself "chuffed" to have the lead. Olesen is media savvy enough to have stopped using his given name of Jacob and adopted his far more memorable middle name. He flashed some big-time potential en route to finishing tied for ninth at last year's British Open.
But, truth be told, no one really cared what he did on Thursday. The round was all about his beswooshed colleagues Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, who were in a blockbuster pairing alongside defending champ Martin Kaymer, who is flying high again after his Ryder Cup heroics.
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In case you haven't heard, McIlroy was swinging his new Nike clubs in competition for the first time, his recently consummated deal being the biggest golf equipment story this century. But playing for the first time in eight weeks, the world's No. 1 golfer seemed uncomfortable from the very beginning, missing his first two fairways. (His round began on the 10th tee.) On the 15th hole McIlroy made a homely double bogey, missing the green on the short side, fluffing a would-be flop shot and then blowing a four-footer.
"For sure, I'm a little bit rusty," he said afterward. "If I had been tournament sharp, I would have saved a few shots."
McIlroy turned in one-over-par 37 and seemed to generate a little momentum with a textbook birdie on the par-5 second hole. But on No. 3, his tee shot wound up in a car park, out of bounds.
"It wasn't that far left, it just hit a tree and went farther left," he offered in his defense.
That led to another double bogey, and he staggered in from there for a 75. McIlroy pronounced himself happy with the performance of his new irons and golf ball, but he admitted he was uncomfortable on the relatively slow greens and wielding his shiny red driver.
"It wasn't quite what I wanted," he said, "but I still felt there were a few good signs out there. [The equipment] is a little different, for sure. I definitely learned a few things out there."
Watching Woods scuffle with the course was instructive, too. Tiger misplaced his swing midway through the round, but he avoided any big numbers and came home with an even-par 72. "It's tough out there," said Woods. "It's just a day to survive and then try to go low the next three days."
Abu Dhabi Golf Club is a tight, twisty track heavy on waste bunkers and shimmering lakes. This year the fairways are framed with penal rough.
"And it seemed like every hole is a crosswind," Woods said. On the front nine he put on a driving clinic, regularly pounding his tee balls 10-20 yards past McIlroy. He resisted any woofing.
"We didn't talk a lot because we were grinding so hard to put up a score," he said.
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On the first hole, a benign par 4, Woods had planned to tee off with a 3-iron. But feeling frisky after two straight birdies, he reached for the driver. Woods says he never fully committed to the shot and thus proceeded to uncork a cold-topped smother-hook that expired 50 yards short of the fairway. He bogeyed the hole and the next one, too, and finished off the round with a three-putt, matching McIlroy's inward 38.
Afterward he had to fend off contradictory news reports; one has him hooking up with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, the other trying to reconcile with his ex-wife, Elin Nordegren.
"I'm not going to comment on my personal life," Woods said, staring down his inquisitor. It was an inglorious end to a day that had begun with so much fanfare. Then again, the downward trajectory of Woods's career is a cautionary tale of how even the most transcendent talents can be derailed.
On Thursday, Olesen offered his contemporary McIlroy a further reminder that all the hype in the world doesn't matter once the tournament begins.