Tiger finds old sparkle as McIlroy's putter runs cold
Tiger Woods produced flashes of his old magic as Rory McIlroy showed little spark and struggled to a three-over 74 on his debut in the Valspar Championship in chilly Tampa.
The Co Down man (28) said on Wednesday that he'd "be happy to go to Augusta tomorrow" and feel like he had a chance. But he hit just six fairways and only seven greens on the testing Copperhead Course at Innisbrook and was near the back of the field for strokes gained putting after missing twice inside five feet.
After opening with nine straight pars, McIlroy bogeyed his 11th hole, then made a clumsy double-bogey seven at the 605-yard fifth, his 14th
Even after holing a 20-yard bunker shot for his lone birdie at his 16th, he bogeyed his final hole with a wedge in hand, missing the green and a four and a half footer for par.
Canadian Web.com Tour graduate Corey Conners (26) made five birdies in four-under 67 to lead by a shot from South Korea's Whee Kim, Kelly Kraft and Nick Watney.
But Woods (42) is only three behind after fading a delicious, low five-iron to 19 inches at the 199-yard 17th en route to a rollercoaster, one-under 70 and a share of eighth place. Winless since 2013, he got within two shots of Conners after mixing four birdies with two bogeys in his first 11 holes.
And while he bogeyed the 12th and 13th and smashed his hand off a tree en route to a spectacular par-save at the 16th, he looked like a man who could be a threat at the Masters.
"It was really brutal out there," said Woods. "But I feel like I'm getting a little better, piece by piece."
He certainly outshone his playing partners with Henrik Stenson failing to make a birdie in a 74 and Jordan Spieth struggling again with his putting to post a 76.
As for the rest of the Irish, Shane Lowry finished level par 71 to keep alive his hopes of the 15th place finish he needs to qualify for the WGC-Dell Technologies Championship in a fortnight.
But Graeme McDowell is 73rd after a 73 while Pádraig Harrington fell victim to the Snake Pit, finishing double-bogey, bogey for a 76 to share 123rd with a struggling Seamus Power on five-over.
On the European Tour, which will stage an event in Saudi Arabia for the first time early next year, Argentina's Emiliano Grillo shot a course record, seven-under 65 to lead the Hero Indian Open at a treacherous DLF Golf and Country Club in New Delhi.
The venue was so testing that delays for rulings meant that 24 players could not finish their rounds on a day when Darren Clarke birdied his last two holes for a level par 72 and a share of 37th.
Grillo leads by two shots from Spain's Pablo Larrazábal, Italy's Matteo Manassero and American Paul Peterson.
On the Staysure Tour in the UAE, American Clark Dennis carded a seven-under 65 to lead the Sharjah Senior Golf Masters by three shots with Headfort's Brendan McGovern 15th after a 72. Ronan Rafferty is 34th after a 75 and Des Smyth and Philip Walton are 44th after 76s.