RORY McILROY teed it up yesterday at Firestone, one of his favourite courses, determined to blast his way out of a recent form slump... instead, he became embroiled in yet another grim uphill battle.
Several months back, when golf appeared much easier for the 23-year-old as he loped to the top of the world, McIlroy would have joined the birdie-fest prompted by idyllic playing conditions during the Bridgestone Invitational first round.
Instead, he had to toil all day like a Trojan to make it back to level-par after dropping three shots in the opening four holes of his first-round 70.
That he did so is a tribute to the Holywood youngster's fighting spirit, which had been called into question of late. Yet, after completing every one of his previous eight rounds at Firestone in the 60s, yesterday's effort offered clear evidence that McIlroy is still not clear of the doldrums.
While polished US veteran Jim Furyk set the pace with a superb seven-under-par 63, the benign mood of the 7,400-yard South Course at Firestone was more heavily underscored by the stirring efforts of several debutants at this World Golf Championship.
A perfect example was the superb 65 shot by Southport's Lee Slattery, who celebrates his 24th birthday today. Also the 66s which left fellow Firestone rookies Simon Dyson and Rafael Cabrera-Bello tied on four-under with world No 1 Luke Donald and Masters champion Bubba Watson, to name just two.
Interestingly, Spaniard Cabrera-Bello posted this score despite struggling with a stomach bug yesterday, while England's 2011 Irish Open champion Dyson has been feeling a little under the weather this week with a virus.
While both retired to their rooms confident that medicine and a good night's rest should do the trick, there's no tablet or easy remedy for what ails McIlroy right now.
The Ulsterman's confidence clearly has been rocked by recent results, including four missed cuts in his last seven appearances.
After watching his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki get thumped in straight sets by Serena Williams in yesterday's Olympic singles quarter-final, McIlroy soon found himself battling even greater odds on the golf course.
A sloppy bogey five at the first was followed by an infuriating six at two, where he took four to get down from the greenside rough. As McIlroy slipped to three-over with another slipshod bogey at the fourth, the outlook was gloomy.
Yet he fought back gamely, sinking a 14-foot put for birdie two at seven, followed by a nice 17-footer for another encouraging three at 10.
Suddenly, he was back hitting fairways and greens with aplomb and just reward came in the shape of a sweet birdie two at 15, sealed with an 11-foot putt. At the finish, there was more to savour than regret in his spirited 70.
McDowell was three-under through seven, while Woods, after playing beautifully from tee to green, couldn't find the pace of the putting surfaces, even missing from three feet for par as he three-putted 18.
Adam Scott hoped returning to Firestone as defending champion would help restore his confidence after that harrowing finish at the British Open -- instead, the talented Aussie's morale took another bruising.
Okay, a first-round 71 at the Bridgestone pales into insignificance alongside the horrific closing stretch of four consecutive bogeys that cost Scott the Claret Jug.
Still, the 32-year-old's faith in his broom-handle putter was rocked yesterday, especially at 14, where he four-putted from inside nine feet for a staggering double-bogey six. It was the stuff of nightmares.
Even in yesterday's conditions, Firestone proved daunting to some of the uninitiated, as Ballymoney native Michael Hoey and his English playing companion Tom Lewis (21), readily will attest after chastening first-round 78s.
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