McIlroy and McDowell fluff opening lines
RORY McILROY'S Aussie bandwagon shuddered to a halt in Southern California on a day in which even Sherwood specialist Graeme McDowell and tournament host Tiger Woods appeared to struggle on unpredictable greens.
After McIlroy's brilliant smash-and-grab victory against Adam Scott at Royal Sydney last Sunday, the chill of Northern Hemisphere winter crept into his game as the Holywood star ground out a lacklustre first-round 73 at Tiger's World Challenge.
Though play was delayed by frost, McDowell, playing with McIlroy in the first group, made a hot start to his title defence with back-to-back birdies on the opening holes.
Yet the Portrush ace, who has two wins, a second place and has banked $3m in just three visits to this lucrative end-of-season jolly in Thousand Oaks, found it difficult to measure the pace of birdie and par putts as he shot an even-par 72.
The small, already tricky greens at Sherwood may have taken a tad too much punishment from recent cold weather in the Santa Monica Mountains. Not that Zach Johnson, runner-up to Woods here in 2011, was troubled as he raced clear with a five-under 67. Woods, however, had some difficulty on the greens and signed for a first round 71 after missing a short birdie putt at the last hole despite hitting his approach to just three feet from the pin.
McDowell was nicely placed at two-under through seven before three-putt bogeys at eight and 12 undid some good work by the Ulsterman, especially at the par-five fifth and 11th. GMac dropped another shot out of the oaks to the left of the 14th fairway as he failed to break par for the first time in 13 rounds at Sherwood.
McIlroy, who hit his tee shot into the water short of the green at the signature par-three 15th for his fifth bogey of the day, still pulled off a morale boosting par-save by holing out from six feet to save par at the last.
Elsewhere, weeks after losing his full European card by less than €20,000, David Higgins scooted into the lead at the Hong Kong Open with a phenomenal 64, his lowest round on any Tour in 13 years.
Higgins, 41 last Sunday, knows he must take best advantage of limited opportunities to play on the main European circuit this season – especially if the golf course fits his eye as nicely as Fanling.
"It's playing like the type of course I grew up playing," explained the Waterville man. "You have to be careful because the ball kind of runs off the edges of greens, which are playing quite hard. It's as close to an inland links as you'll get.
"It suits my game," added Higgins who, at six-under, led Challenge Tour champion Andrea Pavan (24) of Italy by one. Higgins had nine birdies, but Peter Lawrie didn't make one as he stumbled to a dispiriting seven-over 77, so the Dubliner faced the grim prospect of his 11th missed cut in 13 events.
Recent Q-School Graduate Kevin Phelan opened with a solid 70 to lie on even par with defending champion Miguel Angel Jimenez.
Finn Jonas Greenberg was disqualified when he missed his 11.50 tee time after going to the first instead of 11.
Meanwhile, former Irish Open champion Simon Dyson (35), was yesterday handed a two-month ban, which was suspended for 18 months, and fined almost €36,000 by the European Tour following his disqualification from October's BMW Masters.
The Yorkshireman was found in "serious breach" of the European Tour's code of behaviour by a three-man disciplinary panel called to investigate an incident on the eighth green during his second round at Lake Malaren, when Dyson tapped down a spike mark on the line of his putt.
Though acknowledging "the extreme seriousness of the offence," the panel suspended Dyson's ban because there was no history of misconduct during his 14 years on Tour and they viewed the incident as "a momentary aberration."
They also determined that Dyson's "conduct and the panel's decision will have caused and will continue to cause detriment" to him.
Dyson, who counts the 2011 Irish Open at Killarney among six Tour wins, also was ordered to pay €8,962 towards the cost of the proceedings.
Hong Kong Open,
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N'thwestern Mutual World Challenge, Live, Sky Sports 4, 8.0pm