RORY McILROY left many perplexed and clutching at flaws yesterday as, for the third time in seven days, the World No 1 was blown out of his comfort zone by a modest though mischievous ocean breeze.
McIlroy, who missed the cut on seven-over par on his 2015 US debut at last week's Honda Classic, once again appeared out of kilter during a first round 73 at the Cadillac World Golf Championship, a decidedly modest effort alongside the sensational 62 posted by leader JB Holmes.
With eight birdies and a 'wind assisted' eagle three at 12 on his card, Holmes beat by four the best round of 66 shot by Tiger Woods last year on a course extensively remodelled by architect Gil Hanse for this championship.
A couple of lengthy sessions with his coach Michael Bannon last weekend appeared to get McIlroy's swing back in sync as a superlative 63 propelled him to victory in last Monday's prestigious Seminole Pro-Member Tournament.
So the 25-year-old's performance as he played his outward half, the back nine at Doral, in four over par, was surprising, albeit on a golf course McIlroy hardly counts among his favourites.
"Just another day in which where I didn't get off to the greatest of starts," said the Holywood star, once again lamenting his inability to bring good good swings from the range to the golf course.
"Just couldn't get anything going again," he confessed. "Like last week, I still felt a bit tentative out there on the front nine and, at four-over through the turn, I decided to there wasn't much else to lose and try and be aggressive. It felt much better on the second nine so it's a matter of staying positive."
"It definitely playing softer than last year," he explained. "I was struggling to get the ball to the hole. I felt at times last year it was a little unfair because it was so firm but it's better now. Yet the margins are still tight here. It's a course designed for 10 mph winds and they blow 20 mph here."
McIlroy spent an inordinate amount of time in sand traps at Doral yesterday, including each of the three fives with which he opened his round. Forced to lay-up at he par five 10th after hitting his wind-assisted tee shot through the fairway into sand, he made par there, followed by bogey out of a greenside bunker at 11 and another par five out of the right fairway trap at 12.
His fruitless journey on that testing back nine came to a frustrating climax at 18, the infamous 'Blue Monster', where McIlroy, after driving through the teeth of the wind into the fairway, then pulled his second into the lake left of the green, leading to a double-bogey six.
He had to wait until his 13th hole, the par three fourth, for his first birdie of the championship, courtesy of a fine 12 foot putt.
That effort broke the ice and he'd hole from five feet for another birdie at five before brushing aside the disappointment of his third bogey of the day at six by sinking putts of 15 feet off the green at seven for birdie and from 22 feet on the fringe for a superb eagle three at eight.
Having fought his way back to even par, McIlroy missed the green way left at nine and after dumping his next in the sand, needed to hole from 12 feet for a concluding bogey at nine.
Incidentally, McIlroy's position in the US sporting firmament could be gauged yesterday by 'news' that Tom Brady, who led the New England Patriots to victory at last month's Super Bowl, will tee it up with the Ulsterman and his dad Gerry at Augusta National next week, when the golfer conducts a recon before next month's Career Grand Slam bid at the Masters.
Portrush star Graeme McDowell followed-up his top-10 finish at Doral last year with an even more frustrating 73 than McIlroy's after making double-bogey five after visiting a greenside bunker and then the lake on the far side of the green at his closing hole, the ninth.
"What happened at there at the last was a pity but, overall, there were a lot of positives, particularly my putting. I hit some decent shots and while I controlled my ball well at times, I didn't at others so I'm heading to the range to try and straighten-up my ball flight."
Shane Lowry holed from 11 feet for a glorious eagle at eight, the penultimate hole of his first competitive round at Doral, but had to settle for a one-under par 71 after a bogey four at nine. Still, the Clara champion's confidence is soaring after last winter's breakthrough into the world's elite top-50,
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