Tiger thrives at Doral

Published 10:02 pm Sunday, March 10, 2013

DORAL, Fla. — The comments from the gallery picked up as Tiger Woods kept hitting it close and making birdies, and as Rory McIlroy looked as though he were just along for the ride in the Cadillac Championship.

“You’re the real No. 1, Tiger,” a few fans shouted as the players walked to the next tee.

For at least one round on the Blue Monster at Doral, Woods looked more than capable of getting back to the top of the world ranking that he occupied for more than 10 years.

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Despite two tough chips that didn’t reach the green and a three-putt bogey, he made birdie on half of his holes Thursday for a 6-under 66. That gave him a share of the lead with Masters champion Bubba Watson, Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia and Freddie Jacobson.

Indeed, the leaderboard resembled a convention of stars that made it feel like a World Golf Championship. Ten of the top 15 players were from the top 20 in the world, a group that included Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson and Ian Poulter.

Missing from the mix was McIlroy.

The world’s No. 1 player was a model of uncertainty on the tee, as if he were uncertain where the ball was going.

He hit only three fairways and took 31 putts. He was never under par at any point in his round. McIlroy’s best shot was out of the rough on the par-5 first hole, where he made a 15-foot eagle putt from the fringe to get back to even. He then made three straight bogeys — a three-putt from 80 feet (the first putt was 20 feet short), a hooked drive that forced him to hit a wedge over a tree and back to the fairway, and another three-putt bogey on the fourth.

It was that final hole that showed the gap between McIlroy and Woods.

Woods was 40 feet away, just inches outside of where McIlroy’s 4-iron had stopped on the tough par 3. He stood to the side, waiting to move in for a read. Woods rapped his putt and posed over it as it slid to the right and disappeared for a birdie. McIlroy’s birdie putt missed on the low side, and then he missed the 3-footer coming back.

Only two late birdies — one of them a 5-iron from the first cut on the par-5 eighth to 20 feet for an eagle attempt that narrowly missed — made his score of 73 seem like it wasn’t that bad of a day at the office.

It wasn’t good, either.

“It was a bit of a struggle, to be honest,” McIlroy said. “Hit some good shots. Hit some not-so-good shots. As I’ve been saying all week, this is a work in progress and I’m working at it and I’m staying patient. I’ve got another three rounds here to try and work on it a bit more and shoot a few good scores and we’ll see what happens.”

McIlroy has gone through bad patches before, missing four cuts last summer, including the U.S. Open. All was forgotten at year’s end when he had another major, two FedEx Cup playoff events, the season-ender in Dubai and little doubt who was No. 1.

But that was before he changed equipment companies.

And he had never played a tournament under such scrutiny as now, coming off a week in which his frustration level led him to walk off the golf course at the Honda Classic without even finishing the ninth hole of his second round.

McIlroy, who came clean Wednesday with a sincere apology and pledge to never do that again, was happy to get back to golf.

But these are not happy times.

Luke Donald noticed an additional waggle in McIlroy’s swing, evidence that he is thinking about where the club is going on the way back. Most times, players are concerned with the club going forward.

“That’s the toughest time in golf when you can’t concentrate on just hitting good shots,” Donald said after a 70. “You’re focusing on your swing. It’s a game of confidence, and once he gets a little bit of that back he’ll be fine.”

Which comes first, confidence or good shots? Donald contemplated this and settled on good shots.

Those seemed to belong to everyone else.

Woods holed two long birdie putts, including that sliding, slippery putt from about 40 feet on the par-3 fourth hole, and he missed four reasonable chances inside 15 feet. His final birdie was on the par-5 eighth, when he had to lay up from a fairway bunker and hit a wedge that stopped 2 feet from the hole.

“It was certainly a day that could have been a little lower,” Woods said.

Just about everyone could say that in these conditions.

Garcia and McDowell were in the same group. Not only did they have bogey-free rounds, both birdied the same four holes. Jacobson made two eagles in a span of three holes, both times hitting a 5-wood onto the green to just over 12 feet.

Watson played in the group with Mickelson and Stricker, and they were a collective 16-under par.

Stricker had a chance to tie for the lead except he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the final hole. Mickelson, as usual, kept it entertaining. He pulled his tee shot on the 17th hole and his ball stopped rolling after it traveled some 450 yards. He purposely took a free drop on the cart path to avoid the rough, and chipped that to about 5 feet for birdie.

“You hit the ball in as much trouble as I do off the tee, you learn to hit those kinds of shots and have enough practice at it,” he said. “I knew what was going to happen.”

Woods played two rounds with McIlroy at Abu Dhabi to start the year, and they were frequent playing partners during the FedEx Cup playoffs last year. Woods said McIlroy looked “just a little bit defensive” with his swing.

“That happens, and we have all gone through stretches like this,” Woods said. “It happens, and it happened to him last year in the middle of the year, and ended up all right at the end of the year. When you play golf for a very long time, you’re going to have spells like this. You can’t play well every week, even though you try. You’re going to have ups and downs, and just got to battle through it.”