McIlroy eases mounting pressure with solid par round
On the par-four sixth, a barefooted Tiger Woods plays from the water hazard after a hooked tee shot and manages to make a miraculous par. Photograph: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
A bogey at the last left a sour taste but Rory McIlroy still eased the mounting pressure on his shoulders when he survived a shaky run through the Bear Trap to shoot his first par round with his Nike clubs and open his Honda Classic defence with a solid 70.
As Graeme McDowell built on the confidence he gained from last week’s quarter-final appearance in the Accenture Match Play with a three under 67 that left him just four shots behind pace-setter Camilo Villegas (64) of Colombia, McIlroy finally matched par with his new clubs following that disconcerting brace of 75s in Abu Dhabi five weeks ago.
Beaten by Shane Lowry in the first round in Tucson, the 23-year old was not at his very best on a soft golf course, hitting just seven of 14 fairways, 13 greens and taking 30 putts.
But while he was disappointed with his finishing six, he saw enough positive signs to give him confidence that he will be ready to challenge for a green jacket in the Masters next month.
“It wasn’t too eventful, two birdies, two bogeys,” McIlroy said. “I felt okay out there, not great. I guess this golf course, its the sort of place that you dont really go that far under par anyway, so youve just got to stay patient.
“It would have been nice to finish off the round a bit better, but I can come back out tomorrow and hopefully give myself a lot of chances for birdies.”
Confessing that he struggled to get the pace of the greens, McIlroy added: “I think if I’d been playing well, or playing the way I know I can, theres something in the mid 60s out there.
“Hopefully the weather is okay tomorrow and I can go out and try to shoot a good score and put myself in position for the weekend. I guess as well when you’re working on your swing a lot, its hard to commit to the shot that you need to play every time.
“So just a bit more work on the swing and try to get a bit more comfortable with that and should be okay. But I felt like I hit the ball okay today, not as good as I can, but its getting there.”
Watched by former Shamrock Rovers forward Stephen Grant and pal Shane Lowry, who paid $690 to enter a local mini tour event and shot a one under 71 to Grant’s 65, McIlroy opened with five pars before a bunkered approach to the tough sixth led to his first bogey.
He didn’t panic, however, and took advantage of a huge drive over the bunkers at the ninth to fire a wedge to just four feet and roll in the putt to turn in level par.
He stopped briefly to greet Lowry as he walked to the 12th tee but he needed all his powers of concentration to come through the dreaded three-hole Bear Trap stretch to keep his round intact.
After missing an 18 foot chance at the 173-yard 14th, McIlroy missed the 15th fairway and overshot the green but got up and down with a delicate recovery from a heavy lie to just 18 inches.
Bunkered left at the 190-yard 17th, he hit a sensational sand shot to five feet and rolled in the putt.
A pushed drive forced him to lay up at the last, however, and after overshooting the green with his approach, he missed a seven footer and had to settle for a closing bogey.
McDowell got off to the perfect start when he hit a 209 yard approach to six feet and birdied the tough 10th. He didn’t miss a fairway on the front nine but never threatened to pick up shots, consistently leaving himself birdie putts outside 20 feet.
In fact, he did well to keep a bogey off his card at the par-five 18th where he found sand with this approach, failed to make the green in three and had to hole from 11 feet for par and a one under outward half.
But with the sun beaming down on the back nine the 2010 US Open champion started to find his range with the irons.
First he hit a 137-yard approach to seven feet at the first before a 175-yard missile to eight feet at the second put him three under.
But while McDowell came unstuck at the eighth where the three-putted from 35 feet, missing a three and a half footer for his par, he hit a superb approach to 11 feet at the ninth to close with a birdie three and finish well inside the top 20.
McIlroy wasn’t the only major winner who failed to break par and Tiger Woods had to play from water on the sixth just to keep the leaders in his sights with a 70. Villegas eagled the last for a six under 64 that gave him a one stroke lead of South Africa’s Branden Grace, Canadian Graham DeLaet and American Rickie Fowler.