World No. 8 Rory McIlroy closed with back-to-back birdies to seize the lead after Thursday’s opening round of the US$6 million USPGA Honda Classic with a bogey-free seven-under-par 63.
The two-time major champion from Northern Ireland owned a one-stroke lead over the US’ Russell Henley and a two-shot edge over South African Rory Sabbatini, Welshman Jamie Donaldson and the US’ William McGirt after 18 holes.
“I played really solid,” McIlroy said. “It’s a good ball-strikers’ golf course. If you can really keep your ball in play and give yourself many birdie chances, that’s the name of the game here.”
McIlroy’s day was a sharp contrast to that of world No. 1 Tiger Woods, who struggled to a 71, his fifth round in a row without cracking par at PGA National.
McIlroy’s 27-foot birdie putt at the second and a tap-in birdie at the par-five third ensured a strong start.
After dropping a 10-foot par putt to close the front side, he sank an eight-foot birdie putt at 10 and followed with his longest birdie putt, a 45-foot effort at the 11th.
After a six-foot birdie putt at 12 and a 12-foot birdie putt at the par-three 17th, McIlroy found a bunker with his approach at the last, but blasted out to 4.5 feet and sank the concluding birdie putt.
Henley began his bogey-free day off the 10th tee and opened with four birdies in a row, then added others at the par-three 15th and fifth holes. He said finding the fairways was the key.
“Out here if you hit it in the fairway, it’s lift clean and you can get a good lie, and I started out with a really good drive and a really good four-iron, so it was a nice way to start the day,” Henley said.
McIlroy, 24, won the Honda Classic in 2012 to capture the world No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career.
However, last year McIlroy made a humbling withdrawal during his second round at the event, complaining of mental fatigue and a toothache.
He later apologized and said he had learned a valuable lesson to play through tough times.
Meanwhile, difficult patches continued to nag Woods, the 14-time major champion chasing the record 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus, but winless in majors since the 2008 US Open.
Struggling to combine solid putting with accurate ball striking, Woods looked to be in a fight just to make the cut after making three birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey.
Reigning Open champion Phil Mickelson fired a 70, with two birdies and a double bogey after taking the past two weeks off.
Englishman Simon Dyson closed with birdies on his final four holes on Thursday to card a seven-under-par 65 and take the first-round clubhouse lead in the European Tour’s Tshwane Open.
When play was suspended due to the threat of lightning, South African Trevor Fisher junior was also on seven-under after 16 and was to complete his final two holes yesterday morning.
“It’s a lovely start. It’s my lowest round in a good few years, especially on the first day,” Dyson said. “It just puts you in a nice frame of mind, a good stead, and sets it up nicely to have a good weekend.”
There are five players a shot back, including four-time European Tour winner Darren Fichardt. South Africans have won 10 of the past 13 European Tour events on home soil.
England’s Ross Fisher, who has not won since 2010, is also on six-under.
Dyson says improvement with the putter was key to his first-round success.