Monday 22 January 2018

McIlroy gets back into the swing in Shanghai

Rory McIlroy prepares to tee off at the eighth hole during the first round of the HSBC Champions golf tournament
Rory McIlroy prepares to tee off at the eighth hole during the first round of the HSBC Champions golf tournament

William S Callahan

EVEN as he wallowed deep in the doldrums this summer, Rory McIlroy railed against suggestions from fellow professionals, including Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley, that he's more like Phil Mickelson than Tiger Woods.

In an effort to help their young fellow Irishman come to terms with the slings and arrows of misfortune this year, Harrington and McGinley said neither McIlroy nor anyone else should be concerned with his 'streaky' form.

While the two exalted Dubs and many others believe the Holywood native shares this trait with the outrageously gifted Mickelson, McIlroy disagreed... he could see no earthly reason to compromise on his ambition or his potential.

Still, it was fascinating to see McIlroy and Mickelson trading places in Shanghai yesterday. As the Ulsterman took a hugely significant step on the road back to redemption, Mickelson fell victim to calamity of a sort which has blighted McIlroy in recent months.

A superlative, seven-under 65 at the HSBC Champions, his best opening round in 2013, propelled McIlroy into the overnight lead for the first time in 22 tournaments this year.

And it appeared for much of a benign opening day at Sheshan International that Mickelson, a two-times winner of this World Golf Championship, would be his closest challenger. Yet within minutes of briefly joining McIlroy in the lead on six-under through 16 holes, Mickelson imploded with a nine at eight.


After driving into bottomless rough right of this par five, Lefty hacked out and then looked on aghast as successive approach shots tumbled back into the hazard fronting the green.

The shellshocked Mickelson then put another ball into the water at the last as a closing bogey left the crestfallen Californian with a one-under 71. Instead, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano of Spain, and Welshman Jamie Donaldson were McIlroy's closest pursuers following impressive 67s.

McIlroy registered his eighth and final birdie of the day at eight, also his penultimate hole. After watching him perform with much of last year's derring-do, it was tempting to suggest the youngster's back to his impish best.

Yet the most significant feature of this performance was the way in which McIlroy putted his way out of tight corners, first of all at the 12th, his third, and again down the stretch.

So there was no hint of the morale-sapping double or triple bogeys which have afflicted him recently as McIlroy built on the momentum and confidence he drew from his spectacular back-nine eclipse of Tiger Woods in Monday's 18-hole 'Match at Mission Hills'.

Though McIlroy was impressive off tee and fairway at the Korea Open and last week at nearby Lake Malaren, his efforts were undermined on both occasions by a spotty short game and a stuttery putter. If his prodigious length offers McIlroy considerable advantage at Sheshan, he's only going to break out of this year's win drought if he consistently tucks away putts.

"I played very well and controlled my ball really well for the first 12 or 13 holes," he said. "I hit a few loose shots coming in that I got away with but it was nice to birdie eight and shoot seven-under. A great start to the tournament and it's where I want to be."

With all other issues in his game resolved, the key to McIlroy's redemption is his sometimes streaky putter.

For the second week in succession, Graeme McDowell opened impressively, this time with a three-under-par 69. Significantly, McDowell should by now have shaken off the ring-rust which afflicted him at Lake Malaren following a five-week break in which he and Kristin Stape were married.

Though the venue for next week's Turkish Open literally will suit the Portrush man to a tee, only a bogey at the ninth, his final hole yesterday, prevented McDowell from being the only man not to drop a shot in the opening round at Sheshan.

WGC HSBC Champions,

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Irish Independent

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