After all the hype, the photo ops with camels and the extraordinary amount of oil money that Abu Dhabi sheiks have spent to lure Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to the Middle East, the verdict is clear cut: The two leading men were awful in their starring roles.
The sheiks could have been forgiven for wondering what they had invested in after the way Woods and McIlroy played Thursday in the first round.
Woods looked uncomfortable on center stage while McIlroy suffered from stage fright. It was left to the supporting actor Martin Kaymer to shine, but even he forgot his lines at the end.
If Abu Dhabi was meant to be a statement of intent from McIlroy, No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and No. 2 Woods on the upcoming season, then they didn’t have much to say. McIlroy limped in with a 3-over-par 75, eight shots behind leaders Jamie Donaldson and Justin Rose. Woods posted an uninspiring level-par 72. Kaymer scored 71.
This was supposed to be McIlroy’s coming-out party, his debut as part of the same Nike family that includes Woods. The Northern Irishman had 14 shiny new Nike clubs in his bag. On Thursday, it was the driver and putter that let him down.
McIlroy claimed he was getting more swing speed with his new driver. Maybe so, but it certainly wasn’t as reliable. The world No. 1 hit only six fairways all day. Despite that, he had plenty of birdie chances. He just couldn’t buy a putt. His 75 is his worst score in 21 career rounds on the Abu Dhabi course.
McIlroy’s worst finish here is a tie for 11th. He also has a fifth, a third and, in his past two visits, consecutive runner-up finishes. He now needs a good round Friday just to make the cut.
“I didn’t drive it well and didn’t putt well today,” McIlroy said. “I’m disappointed. I felt like I could’ve played better and got a better score.”
Of course the verdict on the new equipment wasn’t entirely negative. It never is when you’re getting squillions of greenbacks.
“I really liked the ball in the wind," McIlroy said. "It was very stable. The irons were good, and the wedges too. I’m not overly concerned. It was a good day to learn a few things.
"When you go out there with new stuff (equipment), you’re always going to be a little bit anxious. It’s about going out there tomorrow and trying to make the cut.”
McIlroy looked most anxious on the relatively easy par-4 third hole, (his 12th after starting on the No. 10). He hit his drive out of bounds there on his way to a double bogey. It was one of two doubles he made during the day. The other came at the par-3 15th when he missed the green by 40 yards. He short-sided himself and failed to get his pitch shot onto the green.
Missing the cut would be a big blow to the sponsors, but McIlroy seemed resigned to that when he talked about having another four weeks off after this tournament to get used to his new clubs.
Woods, of course, is familiar with his equipment. He has been a Nike player for most of his career. The only change this week is a new set of irons in the bag because the grooves on the old ones were wearing away. That’s nothing new. Woods said he changes irons once a year.
As with McIlroy, Woods’ nemesis in the opening round was the driver. He hit only five drives onto short grass all day. The 405-yard, par-4 first hole epitomized his fear with the big stick.
Woods hit a drive that would have embarrassed many high-handicappers. He hit an inch behind the ball and watched as it fell short of the fairway. The ball traveled only about 150 yards. Woods’ fairway metal approach still came up 20 yards short, and he failed to get up-and-down for par.
“My whole game plan was to hit 3-iron or 5-wood on that hole,” Woods said. “I changed my game plan and wasn’t committed to the shot. I didn’t want to hit it. I was really fighting over that tee shot and should have backed off it.”
In truth, Woods fought the driver all day.
“It’s tough out there,” he said. “These fairways are tiny to hit, and it seems like every hole is a crosswind hole. The rough is deep enough where it’s tough to get to the green. It’s imperative to get the ball in the fairway.”
Kaymer outplayed his playing companions all day, but suffered with two drives into water hazards, at Nos. 1 and 9, that cost him dearly.
They go out as a 3-ball again Friday. The sponsors will be hoping for Oscar-winning performances, especially from McIlroy. After all, it’s what we expect from the wonder boy from Holywood, Northern Ireland.