IN the teeth of a capricious Florida wind, Rory McIlroy toiled on Thursday night on his maiden mission as golf’s world No1.
he Blue Monster course here at Doral can be a gentle beast in more benign conditions, but it had the Northern Irishman firmly in his clutches as he began the Cadillac Championship with a one-over-par 73. With Australia’s Adam Scott already in the clubhouse at six under, McIlroy faced an early struggle to assert his new-found supremacy.
The only consolation was that Lee Westwood, his rival and partner in a headline threeball that also included Luke Donald, fared even worse, finishing with a 76, four over par.
Uncharacteristic errors littered the Englishman’s game, not least his lapse in splashing out of a greenside bunker and straight into a lake. Westwood was three over after three and McIlroy, similarly, found it difficult to generate any momentum, despite a fortunate escape at the second when his drive cannoned off the rocks.
After a heaven-sent week in which McIlroy has found himself universally acclaimed as the heir to Tiger Woods, the crown slipped a touch on Thursday.
On his third tournament in succession, after losing the Accenture Matchplay final and winning last week’s Honda Classic, the 22 year-old failed to demonstrate much of his lethal approach play.
He miscued at the 11th green, leaving his second shot in a perilous position on the front edge, and could not complete the up-and-down. The talent for scrambling he displayed en route to his Honda triumph had, it appeared, left him.
Donald, naturally, was his metronomic self, amassing five birdies during his opening 70. Watched in Miami by wife, Diane, the man whom McIlroy supplanted at No1 was never better than at the 245-yard 13th, where he arrowed his tee shot to within five feet of the flag.
McIlroy, likewise, did not want for family support yesterday: mother Rosie and father Gerry followed him throughout his 18 holes but could not inspire him to emulate the heights of the past fortnight.
Oddly, McIlroy’s vastly improved putting was also off kilter on Thursday - as shown when he let slip an eight-footer at the fourth. What he would have given for the touch of American Steve Stricker, who displayed great delicacy on the greens throughout a five-under opening half of 31.
Both Stricker and Scott, Doral’s early first-round leaders, reflected the benefits of rest: the pair had played only five events between them all season. McIlroy, already in his fifth event of the year, will try to adopt a similar approach by taking three weeks off once his work here is done.
Scott, though, was setting a pace that not even he could live with. With an eagle and birdie to start his front nine, the Australian hauled himself four clear of the field at one stage.
The fact that Scott had been in the same group as Phil Mickelson was intriguing - considering that his caddie, Steve Williams, once admitted that he “couldn’t stand” the popular American.
Woods, Williams’s ex-employer, was betraying glimpses of his former brilliance. The first at Doral may have been playing straight downwind, but this did not make the way he played the par-five - with a 355-yard drive, a wedge from 172 yards, and a successful eagle putt from 18 inches - any less impressive.
The pity was that he could not harness such an explosive start, drifting back to level par after 11 after dropped strokes at the fourth and fifth. He had only sunk one putt in excess of four feet all day. But the danger from a player who had already won 16 World Golf Championships remained clear.
The most baffling performance was from Westwood. The world No3 has been in fabulous form, having finished fourth at the Honda, but was erratic as he reached the turn in 40.
Ian Poulter, struggling with the after-effects of pneumonia, cut an equally sorry figure at five over, which called into question the wisdom of his decision to play. Paul Casey has missed a large swathe of the season following a dislocated shoulder sustained while snowboarding, and it showed as he came home in four over. Robert Rock returned a 75, an inauspicious round for an Englishman seeking to secure a place at next month’s Masters.