Babineau: McIlroy grinds his way to an opening-round 70

Rory McIlroy hits his approach shot on the eighth hole during the first round of the Honda Classic.

Rory McIlroy hits his approach shot on the eighth hole during the first round of the Honda Classic.

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Hilton Head, SC - Harbour Town Golf Links

6:41:02 AM ET. 04/18/2014




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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Rory McIlroy walked off the final green at PGA National late Thursday afternoon appearing worn-out and deflated. Botching the day’s final hole can do that to a guy – his bogey-6 at the docile, par-5 18th was only one shot better than the two-man total of his fellow competitors. That was hard to swallow.

As for the bigger picture? McIlroy is going to be OK; an opening 70 on a wet, rugged golf course at the Honda Classic, and his Early Season From Hell had taken a turn for the better, at least for a day. Heck, the last day of February marked only the fourth competitive round of 2013 for the 23-year-old.

McIlroy drove it well and though a few irons traveled longer than he planned, he appeared closer to dialing them in on Thursday. He hit seven of 14 fairways, but his misses off the tee weren’t far off, the ones finishing off the short grass nonetheless commanding a steep penalty in the form of heavy, wet rough. McIlroy’s chipping was crisp, as he saved some nice pars from challenging predicaments around the greens. His lines on the greens were solid, though he lacked the proper speed much of the day.

“I felt I hit the ball OK today, not as good as I can, but it’s getting there,” he said.

Having missed the cut in Abu Dhabi to open the season, and having exited on Day 1 at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, at least he was heading in the proper direction. McIlroy is learning that increased scrutiny is simply part of the baggage that one totes when a World No. 1 shingle is hung on the bag. It was a topic visited with some frequency as he bounced along the fairways catching up to Ernie Els much of his day, sometimes looking like a young wide-eyed kid chasing an autograph.

Els, for one, said he has enjoyed watching the ascension of McIlroy, who is a personable and likable little lad. They talked about McIlroy settling into his new south Florida surrounds just a 10-minute drive from PGA National. Els, for one, knows what it’s like to be “searching” to get one’s game firmed up when the whole world is watching. A chip-in eagle at 18 helped Els turn in a round of 1-under 69. He enjoyed the pairing.

“I think he has it under control,” Els said of McIlroy, “but he asked me, and I kind of mentioned a couple things to him.

“It’s interesting. I played with him in May (when McIlroy was in the midst of missing three cuts in four starts) and he was nowhere. And then he went to the range, practiced, and came back and blew us all away. That’s the talent that he has.”

There was nothing easy about McIlroy’s round on Thursday. He didn’t make his first birdie until the ninth hole, where he stuffed an approach to 4 feet, and didn’t get below par for the round until he rolled in a 22-footer at 14. That got him to the Bear Trap in red numbers. He made nice saves from over the green at 16 and from a greenside bunker at 17, and then made a mess of 18.

He drove it into the right rough, laid up to 105 yards, and then wedged it just a couple yards long, leaving his ball settled down in thick rough again. It was all he could do to get a chip to 8 feet, and he missed the putt.

“I felt it was closer than it has been, though I didn’t finish the last hole very well,” he said.

All in all, an even-par round was pretty much what he deserved. Not great, but not bad for a guy who continues to wrestle with some swing issues, and is unable to commit to some shot shapes he knows he should be hitting.

“You know you should play a fade, and you’re not comfortable with it … it’s hard to do,” he said. “You just revert back to your old habits and what you’re doing anyway.”

Too much swing work still taking place on the course?

“Definitely,” McIlroy said. “Definitely.”

And with that, he was headed home. Another day awaits on Friday. Another chance to narrow the gap on his diligent quest to get “closer.”

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