RORY McILROY showed plenty of grit, but little polish as the quest for confidence and his missing golf game resumed at the Shell Houston Open.
McIlroy drew little satisfaction from a scrappy one-over par 73. "I'm not sure," he sighed, when asked what positives he drew from his day's toil. "I felt I hit the ball okay, but I'm making silly mistakes."
Tiger Woods playfully ordered McIlroy to 'pull the finger out' after he'd knocked the 23-year-old Ulsterman off the top of the world last Monday with his third victory in five starts this season.
All 10 off McIlroy's digits were in plain view on the Champions Course at Redstone, but there only glimpses of the dazzling shot-making which made him a real world-beater last year.
Indeed, the flicker of hope raised by McIlroy's recent final round 65 at Doral was snuffed out on the front nine as he stumbled to an untidy bogey five at two and then made an ugly seven at eight.
Usually, this would be a facile, two-shot par five for McIlroy. Yet after driving into the left fairway trap, he barely advanced his ball 14 yards, then swiped a fairway metal into water to the right of the distant green.
Following his penalty drop, McIlroy knocked his chip 14 feet past the hole and two-putted for a numbing double-bogey that was uncomfortably reminiscent of his travails at last month's Honda Classic. Given the importance of playing all four rounds on his final outing before the Masters on Thursday week, it was worrying to see the youngster fall so far off the pace so early, especially in playing conditions as benign as those he met on the front nine.
As he went through the turn in three-over, McIlroy wallowed six behind playing companion Keegan Bradley on a day which gave DA Points (37) from Pekin, Illinois, the opportunity to match his lowest round score on Tour with a sizzling 64 and set the clubhouse lead.
Bradley stalled on the back nine, ultimately settling for a two-under- par 70, but McIlroy seemed to burst from his chrysalis after the turn. He landed his first birdie of the tournament at 10 and, ass the wind rose, so too did the youngster's morale.
Though he narrowly missed an uphill, 10-footer for birdie at 11, McIlroy didn't have to wait long for another chance. It came at 12, where he adroitly sank an 11- foot putt. Then McIlroy got back to even par by picking up his third shot in four holes with a simple two-putt birdie at the par five 13th.
Though he dropped another shot out of a greenside bunker at 14, McIlroy made an inspired up-and-down birdie from a fairway trap at the next to right the ship once again, before shedding another shot at 17 and missing a decent birdie chance at the last..
This was just McIlroy's ninth round of golf this season and, having turned down the opportunity to play at Bay Hill last week, a measure of ring-rust probably was inevitable.
If he's to offer any sort of meaningful challenge to Woods at Augusta, he must give himself the opportunity to knock his game into shape this weekend. Missing the cut in Houston simply is not an option.
McIlroy's good friend Shane Lowry certainly was worth watching as he ground-out an eventful 71.
Driving the ball nicely and hitting his irons with certainty, the Clara man snapped-up three birdies in his first six holes on the back nine and, despite a bogey five at the exacting 18th hole, he still was in nice shape at two-under through the turn.
Though he made back-to-back bogeys at three and four, Lowry still rolled home a seven-foot putt for a confidence-boosting birdie two at nine.
Lee Westwood putted smartly during his 68. The Englishman is employing a strange-looking putter with a grip which covers more than half of the club and which conceals an adjustable shaft.
But what the Ping Nome loses in prettiness it seems to more than make up for in effectiveness. Westwood holed twice from 20 feet and twice from 15 feet in a round which bodes so well for The Masters. This new implement is about four inches longer than standard and can be used as a belly putter, but Westwood doesn't 'anchor' the club.
Now, he must sort out his form on the par fives. "I must have the worst par-five record on the PGA Tour this year," Westwood said.
"I made bogeys on four and eight, which on those holes is like dropping four shots. This should have been a 64."
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