Tiger Tracker: Woods fires 70, trails by three

Tiger Woods of the USA walks to a tee with his caddie Joe Lacava during the pro-am event prior to the start of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Tiger Woods of the USA walks to a tee with his caddie Joe Lacava during the pro-am event prior to the start of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – A body transplant seems to have occurred during the offseason. Tiger Woods seems to have slipped into Rory McIlroy’s body and vice versa.

That much was obvious from the opening round of the $2.7 million Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

McIlroy leads Woods by three shots after an opening 5-under-par 67 to Woods’ 70. The Northern Irishman shared the early lead with Sweden’s Robert Karlsson.

If you somehow missed watching Woods and McIlroy play the Abu Dhabi greens, you’d have thought the scores would be the other way around. Woods was the most consistent player of a three-ball that also included World No. 1 Luke Donald. The Englishman hit a couple of wild tee shots but still managed to return a 1-under 71.

Woods hit 10 of 14 fairways and 17 greens and only hit one bad shot all day, a duffed wedge shot to the par-5 8th hole, his 17th, that came up 30 feet short. Woods might have been almost McIlroy like with his other 13 clubs, but he struggled with the putter.

“Hit the ball well all day today,” Woods said. “It was a good ball striking round. I had a hard time reading the greens out here. The greens are pretty grainy and I just had a hard time getting a feel for it. Towards the end I hit some pretty good putts overall. I got fooled a lot on my reads.”

The former World NO. 1 is making his first start since winning the Chevron World Challenge in December, his first win in over two years. He also finished third in the Australian Open, and says he’s carried on that form into Abu Dhabi.

“It felt the same as I had from Aus(tralia) to the World Challenge to here. I controlled my ball all day.”

Woods outdrove McIlroy all round, and said it came down to increased fitness work and better mechanics over the winter.

“You have to be fit in order to train and Sean (swing coach Sean Foley) is getting me in position where I can put more speed in it. I don’t really feel like I’m hitting it hard, but the club’s flying through the zone and it’s stable. All of those things are very positive.”

McIlroy, meanwhile, came off the course feeling as he had won the lottery.

“I didn’t feel like I played that good,” McIlroy said. “I definitely didn’t strike the ball as good as I have the last couple of weeks. I think it’s just because it’s your first competitive round of the season, card in your hand, you can get a little tentative or a little apprehensive. I was able to manage my way around the golf course and end up shooting 5 under. I’m very pleased.”

The two men spent a lot of time chatting during the round, and it was clearly obvious from watching them that McIlroy has taken a leaf out of Woods’ fitness book. The 22-year-old has filled out what was once a slender frame. He’s wider across the shoulders and his upper arms look as if he’s been doing some serious weights over the winter.

“I’ve been working hard in the gym. I really started working hard last year. I feel like I’ve got a lot stronger and it’s definitely helped my golf.

“I feel like my lower body has gotten a lot more stable and a lot stronger. That means you can put the club in a better position on the way down and you can do it more often, so you become a lot more consistent.”

Consistency wasn’t a hallmark of his opening round, though. He started on the par-5 10th hole with a pulled tee shot, a fat second and a thinned third over the back of the green. He saved par and that seemed to set the tone for the day. McIlroy only hit six of 14 fairways and 12 greens but managed to scramble like the Woods of old.

“It’s something (scrambling) that I felt like I improved a lot on last year,” McIlroy said. “Even when I had not played well, I felt like I could still get round the golf course. When you play really bad, you turn 74s into 70s and you play average like today, turning a 70 into a 67.”

Woods used to be the king of scrambling when he was the king of golf. He didn’t have to rely on that skill in McIlroy’s company. He just needs to figure out the Abu Dhabi greens.

One swallow does not a summer make, but the ominous sign for the rest of golf is that Woods has found consistency in his swing, especially off the tee. If he can keep that up and finds his old putting touch, look out world.

Look for European writer Alistair Tait on the scene, we will bring you shot-by-shot analysis of Tiger's round on Thursday. Follow him on Twitter here, or Golfweek Magazine here.

Check out our hole-by-hole breakdwn below:

• • •

Hole No. 9, Par 4, 456 yards

Tiger takes out 3-wood and plays his stinger down the left side of the fairway, another fairway hit in regulation.

McIlroy finds the left side of the fairway, while Donald is in the rough on the right.

Tiger hits another green in regulation, but will have a lengthy, 25-foot sidehill putt to see if he could cap his day with a birdie. He misses the put to the right, but is able to secure his 16th par of the with a simple tap-in.

McIlroy will give Tiger a read on his putt, landing right behind Tiger's approach shot. Donald blasted out of the rough and is at the front of the green and got up-and-down for par.

McIlroy finishes the round at 5 under, tied with Robert Karlsson for the lead.

Tiger on the day: 2 under (Final)

• • •

Hole No. 8, Par 5, 597 yards

Tiger pulls driver to get over the dogleg and he hits another fairway in regulation. Donald goes wayward right, while McIlroy is in the rough on the right.

With 312 yards remaining to the flag, Tiger takes 5-wood and comes up short, with a nice angle at the pin. Tiger is angry at himself after a poor third shot, coming up well short of this target and two-putts for par. He finished the par 5s with no birdies despite being on the green in regulation on each one of them.

Hitting from in between trees, Donald gets it back in play and with a shot to reach in three shots. He puts it on the back of the green and will have a look at a birdie putt. He two-putts and earns another par.

McIlroy went from rough on one side to the rough on the other and will have a difficult third shot. McIlroy's third shot finds greenside rough. To cap it off? He chips in for birdie to move to 5 under.

Tiger on the day: 2 under (thru 17 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 7, Par 3, 200 yards

A dangerous par 3, with water lining the right side, Tiger had the honors and hits a fantastic shot behind the hole and will have 12 feet for birdie. Tiger has hit 15 of 16 greens in regulation.

McIlroy gets inside of Tiger and is staring at an easy birdie. Donald lands in the greenside bunker.

Tiger plays too much break and the ball scoots by on the right, but he taps in for his 14th par of the day.

McIlroy drains his putt and moves to 4 under and regains a share of the tournament lead (Gareth Maybin is in the clubhouse at 4 under).

Attempting to get up-and-down, Donald blasts out and is still away, misses his par putt and has to settle for a bogey to fall back to 1 under.

Tiger on the day: 2 under (thru 16 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 6, Par 4, 469 yards

With the wind in his face, Tiger hits a low stinger with 5-wood and puts it in the middle of the fairway. Oh, to be young and strong.

Tiger's 5-wood outpaces Donald's driver.

Tiger's approach shot lands in the middle of the green, as he chooses not to go after the tight pin placement at the far right of the green. A nice putt by Tiger gives him an easy tap-in par to stay at 2 under.

Donald and McIlroy finds the greenside bunker after choosing to go after the flag. McIlroy saves par with a good shot out of the sand, while Donald was buried and had to pop it out, but still put it to within four feet. He makes it and stays tied with Tiger.

Tiger on the day: 2 under (thru 15 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 5, Par 4, 469 yards

With honors again, Tiger pulls driver and he finds his third fairway bunker of the day. The ball is sitting up and shouldn't present much a problem on his second shot.

McIlroy follows Tiger into the same bunker, about 10 feet behind him. Donald misses as well, landing in the rough on the left side of the fairway and will have some long grass to deal with.

All three get out of trouble and onto the green, but each is looking at long distance for birdie, with Tiger the furthest away after his blast out of the sand.

From 35 feet, Tiger missed short again and left plenty of work to be done, but slides in a solid par putt. McIlroy picks up a two-putt par, while Donald does the same.

Tiger on the day: 2 under (thru 14 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 4, Par 3, 174 yards

Tiger nearly picks up an ace and will have a kick-in for a birdie at the shortest par 3 on the course. He converts and is now two shots off the lead.

McIlroy lands pin-high but about 20 feet right of the pin, while Donald goes right over McIlroy's ball and is about 25 feet out. Both players two-putt and settle for par.

Tiger on the day: 2 under (thru 13 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 3, Par 4, 439 yards

Tiger (using 5-wood) and Donald find the fairway, while McIlroy goes well left as the players look to take advantage of the short par 4.

Tiger hits another green, but he will have at least 20 feet for birdie. He seems to be getting frustrated that he isn't placing it closer with his approach shots, and his putter isn't saving him in this round. He picks the right line on this birdie putt, but it runs out of steam and he cards a par again.

Donald comes up just short of the green with his second shot, but still has a clear shot at the hole. He chips and comes within six inches and picks up another par.

McIlroy goes from trouble off the tee to trouble in front of the green, landing in a bunker. (Rory is playing Army golf . . . left, right, left . . .) But, he continues to get out of trouble, playing a fantastic shot out of the sand and saves par to stay at 3 under.

Tiger on the day: 1 under (thru 12 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 2, Par 5, 600 yards

Tiger, playing last now, sprays his drive into the left rough, right in front of a fairway bunker.

Donald finds another fairway and is definitely the most consistent player of the threesome thus far, as McIlroy pushed his drive right, giving him no chance of going for the green in two.

With his second shot, Tiger pulls out 5-wood and hits a high cut back in play and giving himself a nice angle from 70 yards to go at the pin with his third shot. He flies it under the pin and had six feet for birdie, which he left two inches short and pars another par 5.

Donald laid up with his second shot and gave himself less than 50 yards to the pin for his third. He left himself plenty of work to do for a birdie after his third shot runs a bit past the hole. Donald plays too much break on the birdie putt and picks up his ninth par of the day.

McIlroy continues to be erratic, hitting his second shot into the long rough in front of the green. But he hits a spectacular third shot to within three feet and drains it to move to 3 under.

Tiger on the day: 1 under (thru 11 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 1, Par 4, 405 yards

The group cleared the front nine in 2 hours, 15 minutes and start the back nine with a mixed bag off the tee.

Donald places his drive in the center, McIlroy pushes his drive into the right rough and Tiger uses fairway wood and lands it within a few feet of Donald's tee ball.

Tiger hits the flagstick with his approach shot, but it bounces away some 15 feet, leaving the former World No. 1 visably upset over the plight of his aggressive shot. He misses the birdie putt on the low side and taps in for yet another par.

Donald birdies his second-straight hole to move into a tie for the lead with McIlroy at 2 under.

Tiger on the day: 1 under (thru 10 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 18, Par 5, 567 yards

On a definite birdie hole, Tiger still has the honors off the tee (7th time in nine holes) and he hammers it onto the left side of the fairway. It doesn't have the same distance as he last two drives, but should give him a chance at the green in two. (It was still 292 yards)

Donald finds the right side of the fairway and McIlroy stares down his ball into the right-center as well.

The crowd is growing a bit and marshals are telling fans to put away their cameras, but to no avail . . . everyone wants a shot of this impressive morning threesome.

Tiger, using fairway wood, puts it on the front edge of the green in two and has his first eagle opportunity of the day. He misses the eagle putt long and to the left, and then misses the comebacker for a three-putt and a simple par. He closes his first nine at 1 under behind 17 putts and is currently T-9.

McIlroy now seems out of sorts, hitting his second shot into a hospitality suite, but the free drop does him wonders and he gets up-and-down for birdie to move back to 2 under.

From 255 yards out, Donald comes up just short of the green and in the long rough with his second shot. He chips out nicely and guides in a 2-footer for his first birdie of the day. Donald is now 1 under and all players in this group are in the red.

Tiger on the day: 1 under (thru nine holes)

• • •

Hole No. 17, Par 4, 483 yards

Tiger pulls driver again and smacks it deep and into the middle of the fairway. Donald hits the fairway, but McIlroy finds the long rough off the tee to set up a difficult second shot.

Tiger lofts his approach shot high in the air again, and he has the right distance, but it lands well to the left of the pin. For the first time today, he talks to himself walking down the fairway, and he isn't too happy with himself. His putt didn't make him a lot happier, not playing enough break and coming to rest nine inches under the hole. He makes par heading into the par-5 18th.

McIlroy comes up short of the green with his second shot and his third is a chip that comes up well short. He misses the par putt and picks up his second bogey in the last four holes, moving back to 1 under.

Donald hits the green in regulation, but his birdie putt is never high enough and he settles for a seventh par on the day.

Tiger on the day: 1 under (thru eight holes)

• • •

Hole No. 16, Par 4, 475 yards

Tiger pulls driver and pummels it over the dogleg and into the middle of the fairway.

Donald squirts through the rough and onto the left side of the fairway with his tee shot, while McIlroy looks frustrated with a drive that pushes out to the right side of the fairway.

Tiger is only 120 yards out, 70 yards past McIlroy and 50 yards past Donald. Tiger takes aim at the pin with his second shot, but doesn't play it long enough and will have a 20-foot uphill putt for birdie. The putt has the pace, but settles six inches past the hole and Tiger picks up another par.

McIlroy finds the green, but has plenty of work to do from about 35 feet. He two-putts for a par and stays at 2 under.

Donald gets his second shot pin high, about 12 feet to the right of the flag. Surprisingly, Donald continues to struggle with his putter and two-putts for a par as well.

Tiger on the day: 1 under (thru seven holes)

• • •

Hole No. 15, Par 3, 177 yards

Playing in front of a disappointing gallery (getting smaller despite the star power . . . only seven people occupy the seating stand beside the green, and two are marshals), Tiger holds his finish and the ball lands 10 feet left of the hole.

McIlroy and Donald both come up short and will have significant uphill putts for birdie.

Tiger burns the left edge on a putt that seemed to be tracking to the hole and must settle for a par.

Donald picks up his sixth par to to open the round, while McIlroy two-putts for his par as well.

Tiger on the day: 1 under (thru six holes)

• • •

Hole No. 14, Par 4, 490 yards

While Donald and McIlroy find the middle of the fairway, Tiger hooks his driver it a bit too much and finds another fairway bunker on the left.

Walking down the fairway, McIlroy and Tiger have a chat. You can let your mind wander on what they might have been talking about.

Tiger will be putting for birdie, but it will be a lengthy one (approximately 40 feet), flushing a 6-iron out of the bunker and putting it on the back-left portion of the green (the pin is in the back right). This time, Tiger doesn't play enough left-to-right break on the birdie putt, but he knocks in the two-foot par putt to stay in red numbers. (And, yes, we just heard "Get in the hole" for the first time all day)

McIlroy finds trouble for the first time since No. 11, finding a greenside bunker with this second shot. He gets it out of the bunker, but it rolls nearly 30 feet past the pin. His par attempt comes up short and he taps in for a bogey to fall to 2 under and into a tie for the lead.

Donald seems to be knocking off the cobwebs, hitting a nice approach shot to within 10 feet. He plays a break on his putt, but it stays straight and he cards his fifth-straight par.

Tiger on the day: 1 under (thru 5 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 13, Par 4, 414 yards

Using a 3-wood, Tiger simply drops one in the middle of the fairway with his "stinger" and will have a nice look at the green on his second shot, about 150 yards out.

McIlroy and Donald both find the fairway with driver.

Lofting it way in the air, Tiger will have another look at birdie, this one about 10 feet away. Tiger plays too much break right-to-left and it squirms two feet past. He taps it in and picks up a par.

Meanwhile, McIlroy picks up his third-straight birdie to move to 3 under - good for an early two-shot lead.

Donald picks up another par after his 12-foot birdie putt hits the lip and runs past.

Tiger on the day: 1 under (thru 4 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 12, Par 3, 186 yards

Still holding the honors, Tiger stares at a back right pin position and gets it over a hump in the green and back to the pin and will have about 12 feet for birdie.

McIlroy's tee shot nearly comes to rest right on top of Tiger's tee ball and Donald comes up short and will have a tough uphill putt for birdie.

Tiger's birdie putt slides by on the left and he taps in for a par.

McIlroy seems to have his putter going early, sinking his 12-footer for birdie to move to 2 under.

Donald's birdie putt comes up two inches short and he taps in for another par.

Tiger on the day: 1 under (through 3 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 11, Par 4, 417 yards

Again playing first off the tee, Tiger tees it low and takes fairway wood and pounds it into the middle of the fairway.

Donald chooses driver and finds a heap of trouble on the right side, and is forced to hit a provisional drive. McIlroy uses 3-wood and also finds a mess on the right side.

Tiger's second shot glides right over the flag and it comes to rest 15 feet away and Tiger will have his first birdie putt of the day.

Despite the trouble, McIlroy is able to get inside of Woods with his second shot, leaving both players with good looks at birdie.

Putting first, Tiger nails the 15-foot birdie putt to move into red numbers.

McIlroy matches Tiger with a birdie and Donald manages to save par with a nice third shot.

Tiger on the day: 1 under (through 2 holes)

• • •

Hole No. 10, Par 5, 582 yards

With maybe 300 people surrounding the 10th tee (including English cricket legend Ian Botham), Tiger tees off first and puts a 272-yard drive into a fairway bunker on the right side, leaving nearly no chance to go at the green in two shots.

Meanwhile, Donald finds the center of the fairway and McIlroy finds the second cut of rough on the left side of the fairway.

Tiger yanks his second shot out of the bunker and it flies the fairway and finds some thick rough on the left side, leaving a tough third shot. He'll have 80 yards to the flag. He knocks it past the flag and just off the green, needing an up-and-down to save par at the difficult par 5. Tiger bumps a chip to within four feet and holes the putt to pick up a par on the opening hole.

McIlroy struggles with his second and third shots, flying the green out of a bunker with his third shot. His fourth shot is beautifully played to within four feet and he nails the putt for a par.

Donald slides his third shot within 10 feet for birdie. He misses and taps in for a par.

Tiger on the day: Even (Through one hole)

• • •

Previewing Tiger's debut

Tiger Woods finished 2011 in dramatic fashion, beating Zach Johnson to win the Chevron World Challenge and pick up his first win in more than two years.

Does that mean that Tiger is back? That we don't know, but the signs point to a return to weekly contention.

We've spent a lot of time this week dissecting Tiger, including Jim McCabe's feature story on where others feel that Tiger's game is at and whether or not 2012 could be a return to old form. Check out that story here.

Our Alistair Tait also caught Tiger's press conference on Tuesday, and left unimpressed, opining that Tiger needs to open up more about golf-centric questions. Read that story here.

And, today, Jim McCabe came back to question why people would criticize Tiger for playing in Abu Dhabi because he was paid an appearance fee. Check out his tongue-in-cheek column here.

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