Tiger Woods solid in Abu Dhabi debut as Rory McIlroy scrambles to top of leaderboard

January 26, 2012

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Tiger Woods’s vital statistics tell the tale: 10 of 14 fairways hit, 17 of 18 greens in regulation, and 35 putts for a two-under-par 70.

Tee to green in the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, Woods was imperious, his swing painting beautiful clear pictures with his driver and irons. But on the greens, that picture became grainy.

“It was a good ball-striking round,” Woods said. “But I had a hard time reading the greens. They were pretty grainy, and I just had a hard time getting a feel for it, especially for the first few holes. Towards the end I hit some pretty good putts, but overall I got fooled a lot on my reads.”

Indeed, Woods missed a five-footer on the 13th (his fourth hole) and, worse still, a three-footer on the 18th as frustration began to be etched on his face. He was sporting a goatee and a fluorescent Augusta-green shirt as he began to find his Masters touch on the front nine (his back), lagging putts to kick-in distance. If he keeps finding fairways for the next three rounds, his confidence with his irons will surely allow him to be more aggressive with his approaches, which should set up more makeable birdie chances.

The good news for Woods after round one, though, is that his wild and wayward days off the tee seem to have been smoothed out during the winter break, and there were no bogeys to spoil his scorecard. Woods was delighted with his long game and has even found some extra yards off the tee, often out-driving the bulked-up, self-confessed new gym rat Rory McIlroy.

But McIlroy won bragging rights in this showboat threesome with a five-under 67 that tied him for the clubhouse lead with Robert Karlsson. Luke Donald finished last in the marquee group with a one-under 71. He probably had to buy lunch in the splendid eagle-shaped clubhouse at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

In contrast to Woods, McIlroy struggled with his long game but chipped and putted his way out of jail, just like Woods used to do. Take the 597-yard, par-5 eighth, for example.

“Hit a driver in the left rough, hit a 7-iron to the right rough, hit a pitching wedge from 130 yards just off the green on the right and chipped it in,” McIlroy said, as if it were just another ho-hum birdie. “I walked up to it, and all I needed to do was just sort of land it on the green and let it roll down the hill.”

Genius at work. Seve Ballesteros would have been proud. McIlroy hit only six fairways and 12 greens in regulation, but his 25 putts were 10 fewer than Woods’s total.

McIlroy has beefed up, and while his shoulders aren’t quite up to pro-wrestler standards, he now looks like a potential all-Ireland arm wrestling champion. McIlroy’s pumped up power almost saw him get drawn into a macho long driving contest with Woods. He was honest enough to admit as much.

“It did cross my mind;  that’s not the answer you were expecting,” he said, laughing. “There were a couple of times he hit it out there, and I wanted to try to keep up with him.”

But success at this elite level is not just measured in yards. It all comes down to inches — eight inches to be precise. McIlroy discovered through 3D swing analysis that his point of maximum power was eight inches behind the ball, and that he had a weak left side. The details of how he applied this knowledge to his game, he said, were too boring for public consumption and required an advanced physics degree to understand. Suffice to say it had something to do with torque and spine angles and leg rotation and the hip bone being connected to the thigh bone. Or something like that. He now has more stability and control, fewer moving parts and more power.

McIlroy, Woods and Donald will set off again at 12:05 p.m. local time on Friday (3:05 am ET), and they’ll be looking to inch their way around the National Course’s 6,934 yards. It’s the first day of the weekend here in the United Arab Emirates, and record crowds are expected.

Round one of this heavyweight bout was won on points by McIlroy, but a knockout punch on Sunday afternoon would carry more weight.