Rory McIlroy explodes back into top gear in Abu Dhabi
PAUL McGINLEY played like 'Captain Fantastic,' but the most striking feature of the Abu Dhabi Championship first round was Rory McIlroy blasting tee shots into the distance with the ferocity of a .50 calibre Desert Eagle.
Abu Dhabi is where European skipper McGinley's Ryder Cup dreams came true 12 months ago and McIlroy's nightmares began, giving added significance to the performance of both in their first competitive round this year.
While McGinley (47) outscored world No 7 McIlroy by two as he leapt to within one stroke of the tournament lead with a superb four-under-par 68, the power, precision and potency of the 24-year-old's driving served as a warning to the rest of the golfing world. The kid is back!
When McIlroy is hitting his crimson Nike Covert like this, all is right with his world. It mattered little that he signed for a relatively modest opening 70 and a share of 19th place, for the rock upon which his game is founded was firmly back in place.
"I feel confident. The way I'm hitting the shots, it seems to be there," he said. "The driving is key. It's the foundation of my game.
"If I drive well, I can play well, I can score well and I can win."
A year ago, after two rounds of 75 caused him to miss the halfway cut, McIlroy left Abu Dhabi muttering disconsolately: "I have to find a driver I can hit."
The template was set for a season of frustration, self-doubt and despair on the golf course.
Buoyed by November's morale-boosting victory at the Australian Open and benefitting from 10 days' intensive groundwork with swing coach Michael Bannon in Dubai, McIlroy ripped his ball phenomenally far down on the nine fairways he hit.
"I am driving it further," confirmed McIlroy, who was a whopping 50 yards ahead of playing companion Phil Mickelson at 16 after blitzing his tee shot 325-plus yards across the dogleg.
"It's a combination off the golf ball, the driver and just getting stronger from all the work I'm doing in the gym," said McIlroy, who'd have threatened the lead of Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Romain Wattel and Matt Baldwin on five-under had his short game and putting been sharper.
Controversy bubbled when Sergio Garcia described deep rough at the National as "dangerous" after twice requiring on-course treatment from a tournament physiotherapist during yesterday's round for a shoulder injury he aggravated trying to blast his ball out of the long grass.
"It's very, very thick, but the worst thing is they've cut it from the green back to the tee. By doing that, the ball nestles down a bit," said Garcia, revealing he initially strained his left shoulder lifting weights at home over the holidays and felt further pangs playing out of the rough during Wednesday's pro-am.
"You certainly have to be careful," intoned Mickelson, who, incidentally, hit just six of 14 fairways and found the short grass only once in six attempts with the new Big Bertha Alpha driver he eulogised on Tuesday.
Confirming he felt a pull in his back as he played his ball out of the rough on his final hole, the American added: "The instinct is to try and hit the shot, but you also don't want to have an injury in the first tournament of the year. Everybody has got to play it, but there's a fine line between challenging and putting yourself at risk for the rest of the season."
Tournament director Miguel Vidaor pointed out in a statement that the rough at all European Tour events is cut from the green back to the tee.
He added that the longest grass at the National, dense after recent over-seeding and exceptional growing conditions, was given an extra trim on Wednesday back to the regulation 72mm.
McIlroy and McGinley were prominent among those who dismissed suggestions that the rough was dangerous. "Simple solution, don't go in there," said McGinley, while McIlroy insisted: "It is like the rough you'd get at the US Open, but it's not dangerous, not at all. If you get a bad lie, chop it out. I had to gouge out a couple today. It's fine."
McGinley exuded class as he outscored playing companions Tom Fleetwood of England (by five) and Dane Thorbjorn Olesen (by six), two young men expected to contend strongly for the European team at Gleneagles.
Even his solitary dropped shot could be described as a "good bogey" when McGinley chipped in sweetly from off the back of the green for five at 16 after hitting his second into water and fourth through the putting surface.
Michael Hoey attributed superior ball-striking during his career-low 69 in Abu Dhabi to intense work done in recent days with coach Johnnie Foster, while Damien McGrane could be well satisfied with the 70 that left him in a tie for 19th with McIlroy overnight.
Padraig Harrington seethed after missing a three-foot par putt on the final hole of his first-round 71.
He shared 35th place with Simon Thornton, whose disappointment with a three-putt bogey on the same ninth green was balanced by satisfaction with a "good all-round performance."
Waterford's recent Q-School graduate Kevin Phelan posted a solid 72.
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