Wednesday 21 February 2018

Rory way off mark in grim start to new era

in Abu Dhabi

JUST do it, the famous slogan says. Sadly, Rory McIlroy couldn't.

After the pomp and ceremony of Monday's launch of his mega-million dollar deal with Nike and encouraging months of practice with his new clubs and ball, McIlroy flopped when it counted most.

Executives at the company's corporate HQ in Oregon surely winced when they awoke to learn that McIlroy's first competitive round playing with Nike equipment was his worst in five years at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship.

One suspects their embarrassment may be short-lived. Though his three-over-par 75 left Ireland's world No 1 wallowing in 83rd place and in danger of missing today's second-round cut, the difficulties McIlroy encountered, especially with that new crimson Covert driver in his hands, did not appear insurmountable.

Okay, those who believed McIlroy could play with a yard brush and still excel, must accept that the changeover cannot be completed without teething troubles, while his performance with the Nike Method putter on the golf course and then in an afternoon's session on the practice green was a little disconcerting.

Yet McIlroy's problems were due as much to ring rust after his eight-week mid-winter break and the unique pressure of playing with new clubs for the first time with a card in his pocket.

Justin Rose, who shared the tournament lead with reigning Irish Open champion Jamie Donaldson of Wales after a phenomenal 67 as the desert wind blew its hardest, explained it best.

"It's going to take time," he said. "You have to be patient. Everything may be fine in practice on TrackMan, but until you get (new clubs) out on the golf course you just don't know 100pc what's going to happen under pressure."


After suggesting it could take McIlroy three or four tournaments to adjust, Rose then cited the added pressure faced by the 23-year-old during Monday's launch and perhaps even the dramatic role he played in Paul McGinley's election as Ryder Cup captain.

"It's the first round of the year," the English Ryder Cup star explained. "There certainly have been a lot of factors involved for Rory this week. That's not his normal preparation for a tournament."

Playing in the show group with his new Nike stablemate Tiger Woods and three-times Abu Dhabi-winner Martin Kaymer, McIlroy posted two double bogeys in the same round for the first time since Friday at last May's Memorial at Muirfield Village.

His five at the 177-yard 15th, the Holywood star's sixth hole, was the result of a shocking semi-shank which flew into deep trouble some 40 yards to the right of the green. He then made six at the third after his hooked drive careened off a tree and out of bounds into a car park.

McIlroy, who'd shot over-par only once before in 25 rounds in Abu Dhabi, found just five of 14 fairways off the tee.

Woods was equally poor in this department and Kaymer found just three fairways, twice driving into water on his way to a one-under 71. Yet they both trumped the Ulsterman hands down on the greens.

Especially Tiger, who putted sublimely for his even-par 72, which saw him take the honours against McIlroy for the ninth time in the 12 rounds they've played together.

"I'm disappointed," McIlroy conceded. "If I'd been tournament sharp, I'd have shaved a few shots off my score.

"I felt as though I didn't drive the ball particularly well and didn't putt too well, so they are the two aspects of my play I need to work on. Apart from that shot at 15, my iron and wedges were good, while I liked how the ball performed in the wind. It was really stable.

"Overall, I'm still getting used to the feel and everything and I am not overly concerned about how I played today. It's probably the driver and the putter that require the biggest adjustment.

"You need to drive it in the fairway around here to make a score," McIlroy added, revealing that trust is key to solving his difficulties off the tee.

"It's the swing more than the club," he explained. "I feel I can release this driver a lot more than any I've had before, which is a plus, but it's about being committed to it.

"As that was the first time I'd used my new clubs with a scorecard in my hands, it was a case of learning a few things. On the range, you can just wheel away and everything is fine, but it's a little different on the course.

"It's still a learning process. I've got here and then four weeks off to work on my game. My main concern is to do some work now and try to make the weekend."

McIlroy at least drew satisfaction from girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki's straight-sets victory over Donna Vekic in the second round of the Australian Open yesterday.

Woods, meanwhile, refused to comment on a 'National Enquirer' report speculating he'd recently asked ex-wife Elin Nordegren to remarry him and she agreed after Tiger supposedly signed a prenuptial agreement with a $350m anti-cheating clause.

Abu Dhabi Championship,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 6.0am

Irish Independent

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