Rory McIlroy confessed that the strain of getting to world number one took its toll on him as he crashed to his first over par score for five months in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at a blustery TPC Blue Monster.
Winds gusting over 25 mph spreadeagled the 74-man field and McIlroy could only manage a one over par 73 to finish the day tied for 35th and seven shots behind pacesetters Adam Scott and Jason Dufner.
“To be honest I felt a little flat out there,” McIlroy said after his first over par score since the third round of last October’s Kolon Korea Open. “I shouldn’t, it’s a World Golf Championship, but just felt a little flat.
“Physically, I’m fine. But mentally, it’s tough. When you go to Arizona and you’ve got a chance to go to world No. 1; and then Honda, you’ve got a chance to and then, all of a sudden you’re there, and you’re like, well, what do you do.”
McIlroy could see his reign as world number one last just one week — equalling the shortest on record held by Tom Lehman — if Lee Westwood or Luke Donald win this week.
But while Westwood looks unlikely to do that now after a 76, Donald was lurking just outside the top 10 after a two under par 70 featuring five birdies, one bogey and a double bogey six.
Having come close to earning the number one ranking with his run to the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play two weeks ago, McIlroy revealed that he was mentally spent after finally getting there following his sensational victory in the Honda Classic last Sunday.
Playing alongside Westwood and Donald, he went out in one over par with bogeys at the 11th and 18th and a solitary birdie from 11 feet at the par-five 12th.
But he was uninspired on the greens, taking 32 putts as he came home in level with birdies at the par-five first and eighth cancelled out by back-to-back bogeys at the third and fourth.
“It was a bit of a struggle,” said McIlroy, who narrowly failed to take advantage of a lucky bounce off rocks at the third and then three-putted the fourth. “It was a pretty tricky day but obviously there were good scores out there. I just didn’t really get anything going.
“I was trying to sort of play my way back into the round. I thought if I could shoot under par on the back nine, which was the front nine, post something around 70 or 69, it would have been a good score.”
“But I made a couple of bogeys early on on that nine and couldn’t really get it back. I just need to go out and set myself a target tomorrow and try to post a number.”
Scott and Dufner fired six under par 66s to lead by two shots from the rejuvenated Dane Thomas Bjorn and Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, with seven players including Europeans Alvaro Quiros, Justin Rose and Miguel Angel Jimenez tied for fifth on three under.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson shot level par 72s to share 25th place. But it was a disappointing day for Open champion Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, the other two Irishmen in the field.
Clarke looked likely to lead the Irish challenge when he stood on the 18th tee at one under par for the day.
But the 43-year-old drove into the lake on the left off the tee and then found water left of the green with his third to rack up a triple bogey seven and sign for a two over 74.
Graeme McDowell, who was sixth here in 2010, failed to make a birdie in a three over par 75.
As for Woods, the 14-time major winner got off to the perfect start when he hit a wedge to 22 inches at the 522-yard first and tapped in for an eagle three.
But while he birdied the par-five eighth and 12th holes, he bogeyed the fourth, fifth, ninth and 18th to finish the day six shots off the pace.
“It was just a difficult day,” said Woods, who had 30 putts, three-putting twice. “The wind was blowing putts around, and it made for a very challenging round.”
It certainly was a challenging round for Spaniard Sergio Garcia who’s finish completed a day that went from the sublime to the ridiculous. He turned in 31 and was only one behind, but then came home in 44, a triple bogey on 18 following five successive bogeys.
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