McDowell hits front as McIlroy finds going tough
GRAEME McDOWELL surged into a share of the clubhouse lead at the Cadillac Championship as world No 1 Rory McIlroy endured yet another trying day on the road to rehabilitation.
McDowell made the most of fabulous scoring conditions by landing six birdies in a faultless first-round 66, which eased him alongside his Spanish playing companion Sergio Garcia, Tiger Woods, Masters champ Bubba Watson and Sweden's Freddie Jacobson.
Unlike world No 1 McIlroy, who followed-up last Friday's meltdown at the Honda Classic with a slipshod one-over-par 73, McDowell has rediscovered the finishing touch which helped guide him to US Open and Ryder Cup glory in 2010. Boosted by birdies on his opening two holes, the Portrush man gambolled through six in three-under, then holed from 12 feet at 11; 30 feet at 14 and 10 feet at 17 to equal his best round at Doral.
"You have to get off to a good start at these events, you don't want to be down with the dead men on Saturday and Sunday," said McDowell, who shelled-out $100 to Garcia on the back of Real Madrid's victory over his beloved Man United.
As for McIlroy's staggering form slump this year, the giveaway is in his takeaway – or, to be more precise, the little backlift McIlroy performed with his club before each and every full shot he played from the tee, the fairway and, too often, Doral's Bermuda rough as he tries to re-groove his ailing swing.
McIlroy, the world's top-ranked golfer, figured in the marquee group with
No 2 Woods and No 3 Luke Donald, but the 23-year-old patently is still at school with is game.
These are strange days, indeed, for McIlroy, who actually looked more comfortable and at ease on the podium at Wednesday's media conference at Doral than he did on the 10th tee as he prepared to hit his opening shot.
Judging by 73 which left him wallowing seven off the clubhouse lead, McIlroy didn't tell a word of a lie on Wednesday when he said the remedial work he's doing with coach Michael Bannon "is still a work in progress."
"The takeaway has always been the biggest key for my golf swing and I need to get back to that," the Holywood star explained. "When I take the club away and am trying to put it in the right position, it feels very alien to me right now."
It looks alien, too, especially by comparison with the effortless way McIlroy swung the club last year as he romped to victory at the Honda Classic, PGA Championship, Deutsche Bank, BMW and DP World Championship.
McIlroy appears a world apart from that level of performance, reinforcing his argument that the problem is rooted firmly in his technique and not the new clubs he's using as part of a $20m per annum deal with Nike that simply was too lucrative to turn down.
Yet the uncertainty he endured on his first outing with that equipment in Abu Dhabi in January provided the perfect breeding ground for the gremlins which currently hold his golf game in their grip.
And the amount of work he's needed to do with coach Bannon since last Friday suggest McIlroy might not have done enough groundwork during winter or in the five weeks between Abu Dhabi and his first round defeat to Shane Lowry in the Accenture Match Play.
Woods had nine birdies on his card as he comprehensively outscored McIlroy. Yet Tiger still frittered away a couple of shots as the so-called Blue Monster proved about as threatening to the world's finest professionals as a friendly Labrador.
"It was easy as it gets around this place today," Tiger enthused. "The wind wasn't up like it usually is at Doral and it was coming out of the easier direction, which explains why there are so many guys under par."
McIlroy's disappointment could be gauged from his refusal to speak with waiting reporters, moments after explaining on Sky TV how he wanted to maintain a good relationship with the press.
So, for the second time in six days, his words were at odds with his deeds.
"It was a bit of a struggle, to be honest," he said. "But I've three more rounds here to try and work on it a bit more and I'm staying patient. I didn't put as much pressure on myself today and that is the reason I didn't get as frustrated."
Though McIlroy and Woods appeared quite relaxed as they discussed the Ulsterman's bright green and white golf shoes as they waited for the off, the youngster appeared tight and anxious as he prepared to hit his opening tee shot with his three-wood.
"Show them what you can do, Rory," a fan shouted loudly, but McIlroy's ball arced towards the right trap.
McIlroy, who pulled his lay-up from the bunker into thick rough and then hit his approach into the front trap, got up and down from the sand for par.
After back-to-back bogeys at 13 and 14, the youngster made his only birdie on the outward nine at the 172-yard 15th where he hit a glorious tee shot to nine feet and sent the ticklish right-to-left putt down the slope and into the cup through the right side-door.
Two over through the turn after a clumsy bogey from the greenside rough at 18, McIlroy turned back the clock several months with a phenomenal eagle three at Doral's first hole, despite pulling his drive into the left rough.
Yet his recent mediocrity was restored as McIlroy stumbled to three bogeys on the trot through five before back-to-back birdies at seven and eight lent a little more respectability to his card.
In all, the world No 1 found just three of 14 fairways off the tee, while his haul of 31 putts included two three-putt greens on yet another day which underlined just how far his crown has slipped.
Padraig Harrington wallowed at the wrong end of the field after a four-over-par 76. Despite potting an 11-foot birdie putt at the first, the Dubliner sank just one other putt longer than three feet, a 12-foot par-saver at 17.
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