RORY McILROY sported enough stubble in Korea this week to suggest the 24-year-old could be giving himself a head start for 'Movember'.
The Holywood native's golf also looked a little untidy as he embarked on his first tournament round in a month at the Kolon Korea Open, though by the finish of McIlroy's one-under-par 70 his approach play and short game looked razor sharp.
Typically of a season of discontent, in which McIlroy has plummeted from the top of the world rankings to sixth, he once again had a double-bogey on his card, an unwieldy five at the treacherous par-three 13th. After hitting his tee-shot into the water, McIlroy (pictured below) then played an unimpressive pitch to 35 feet from the drop zone and took two putts to get down.
Not since June's Irish Open has the Ulsterman managed to go through a tournament without making a double, treble or quadruple bogey and yesterday's lapse at 13 was the 38th time in 66 competitive rounds this year that he's dropped two shots or more at one hole.
Naturally, a little ring-rust was to be expected after a month in which a swirl of friendly rounds with mates (including former US president Bill Clinton) and social engagements in Dublin were interspersed with the inevitable sessions with swing coach Michael Bannon.
One assumes McIlroy spent some of that time helping his legal team prepare for their acrimonious Four Courts battle with former management company Horizon. Papers were lodged and a trial date set for next October by Mr Justice Kelly in the Commercial Court last Monday.
"I just wasn't very comfortable with the tee-shot (at 13)," said McIlroy. "I took a long time to get settled over it and then just didn't make a very good swing."
Yet he rebounded with a superb birdie at the next, hitting a fabulous mid-iron to seven feet before adroitly holing the putt. This classy approach shot, and two more McIlroy played as he landed birdies at 17 and 18, were strongly reminiscent of his imperious play 12 months ago.
At day's end he looked threatening in a tie for 12th place, three behind leader Ik-Jae Jang (40) of Korea, who opened with a flawless 67. "It was tough, some of the pin positions out there today were brutal, just cut on slopes and very hard to get close to them," said McIlroy, "and when you did get close to them you left yourself very tricky putts."
After lipping-out with a seven-foot putt to save par at four, McIlroy holed from six feet for birdie at the next. He then fearlessly potted a 15-footer at nine to stay at level par through the turn.
"I felt I was a little rusty after the four weeks off," the Ulsterman mused. "But I battled back nicely and to end up under par for the day wasn't too bad."
He certainly knows how to go low at Woo Jeong Hills Country Club in Cheonan, having shot a final-round 64 there in 2011 as he finished runner-up to runaway American Ricky Fowler.
Ireland's Peter Lawrie and David Higgins certainly were upstaged in their desperate, last-ditch bid to hang on to their European Tour cards at the Perth International by Sweden's Peter Hedblom.
Lawrie needs to finish 34th or better and Higgins inside the leading 20 on Sunday to climb into the top 110 on the Money List and avoid Q-School. Both made a tepid start to the tournament, one-over-par rounds of 73 leaving them tied 48th with, among others, Michael Hoey.
This was in stark contrast to 43-year-old Hedblom, who opened the final regular event in the 2013 Race to Dubai with a stirring four-under-par 68, which earned him a share of the lead with former British Amateur champion Jin Jeong of Korea and Australian duo James Nitties and Clint Rice.
Currently 179th in the Money List, Hedblom needs a top-two in Perth to evade an 11th visit to Q-School at PGA Catalunya, where, incidentally, he graduated with his Tour credentials last year.
"I'm so far back I need a win or to finish second really," said Hedblom, who missed seven of his first eight cuts this year, but carded six birdies and two bogeys yesterday.
"You have nothing to hold back; you just have to go for everything," he added. "The tension is nothing really. Today it felt like any tournament – if I'll be leading the last day, then maybe I'll feel the tension, but right now it's just one round out of four.
"It's good to at least have a chance to do it. The game is there, you just need a little bit of confidence."
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