Rust-free McIlroy 'ahead of schedule'
Tiger Woods showed flashes of his old brilliance in his return to action at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego last night.
But Rory McIlroy declared he's also "ahead of schedule" in the build up to the Masters after opening with an immaculate 65 in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
Woods returned to the PGA Tour for the first time in 12 months and carded a level par 72 with West Waterford's Seamus Power and Offaly's Shane Lowry just three strokes off the early lead after 69s.
"I'm very happy with three-under," Lowry said of his 69 on the North Course. "You are always happy any time you break 70 on either of these courses so I'm happy with my first round after two months off."
Woods (42) showed obvious signs of rust but he also showed no little power and some of his old flair with the irons, as he almost aced the 189 yard 16th on the South Course to get back to level par.
More than 8,000 miles away, McIlroy was pleasantly surprised to make seven birdies in another impressive display in just his second start since last October.
After going 50 holes without dropping a shot in his first start for three months in Abu Dhabi last week, yesterday's bogey-free round was his third in five starts since he returned last week.
He was lurking ominously it a tie for fifth overnight, just three strokes behind Welshman Jamie Donaldson, who needed a birdie-birdie finish for the European Tour's first 59 but went par-bogey for a 10-under 62.
There was no danger of a 59 in southern California, least of all by Woods, who has not played four rounds in a PGA Tour event since 2015.
Tony Finau shot a under seven 65 on the South Course to lead by one from Ted Potter Jnr and Ryan Palmer, who posted six-under 66s on the South Course where Power (30) came back from two-over after three holes to make six birdies in an impressive, three-under 69.
He was comfortably inside the top 20 alongside Lowry, who missed just three greens in regulation on the North Course, picking up birdies at the 11th, 12th, 14th and par-five 17th.
Woods was clearly rusty but after missed fairways led to early bogeys at the first and fifth, he used his power to hit two perfect shots to the heart of the 560-yard sixth to set up an easy birdie four.
Erratic at times with his irons, the former world No 1 showed touch by scrambling for pars at the seventh and eighth before getting back to level par by hitting a 133-yard wedge to 18 inches at the 10th.
He handed that shot back when he took six at the 13th, lipping out from three feet. But he made amends at the 16th, rifling a six-iron to eight inches.
As defending champion Jon Rahm opened with a 68 to lurk just three off the lead in his bid for a win that could see him replace Dustin Johnson as world number one.
Pádraig Harrington also showed signs of rust but came back from two-over-par after five holes on the North Course and also signed for a 72.
Like Woods, McIlroy is trying to get his game in shape for the Masters and what pleased him most about his 65 in Dubai was not just his ball-striking but his touch.
"I'm delighted with how it's going and particularly with my short game," said McIlroy, who had 10 single putts, one of them a 35 footer at his third hole of the day.
"I'm saving myself on the occasions when I hit bad shots, so it means I'm not leaving a lot of shots out there. Yeah, I'm ahead of schedule and it was nice to get off to a good start again.
"That way, you put yourself right in contention straight away. That's one of my goals for this year.
"I feel like I started off last year sort of 71, 70 instead of getting right into the thick of things from the start."
It was a good day too for Greystones' Paul Dunne, who finished with an eagle three at the 18th for a 66 that left him tied for 10th.
The struggling Graeme McDowell shot 72 and Darren Clarke a 75 to leave them in danger of missing the projected three-under-par cut today.
But there were no such problems for Manchester's David Horsey whose early 63 was matched by Anthony Wall before Donaldson (42) threatened to become the first player in European Tour history to shoot 59.
He raced to 11-under par after making nine birdies and an eagle in 16 holes but failed to chip in at the eighth (his 17th) and bogeyed the ninth for a 62
"It was close, but it wasn't meant to be," Donaldson said of his chip at the eighth. "But you can never be disappointed with a 62, can you?"
- Omega Dubai Desert Classic, Live, Sky Sports Golf, 7.30am
- Farmers Insurance Open, Live, Sky Sports Golf, 8.0pm