x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Early birds treated to a few eye-opening moments

Golf is a solitary, inward battle and here was perhaps a too literal representation of it, explains Osman Samiuddin.

Tiger Woods produced a groan-worthy shank on 10, but he wasn't alone in fighting the course. Rory McIlroy opened with a pair of double bogeys and Martin Kaymer, also in the early morning trio, found the water. Twice.
Tiger Woods produced a groan-worthy shank on 10, but he wasn't alone in fighting the course. Rory McIlroy opened with a pair of double bogeys and Martin Kaymer, also in the early morning trio, found the water. Twice.

This is a serious query. Which other professional sport begins as early in the day as golf?

It is difficult to think of any major sport that could have a 7.40am start time, as the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship had on Thursday.

And that, too, was the tee-off time for the starriest trio here: Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Martin Kaymer.

It may sound like a flippant point but it kind of described the arc of their day. It just felt like it was a little too early.

The eyes not fully open, the mind not completely attuned, the body yet to get loose; it produced a tetchy, disjointed and unprepared round of golf from the world's top two and a three-time Abu Dhabi champion.

McIlroy said later he felt "a bit rusty" and though he meant it in the sense of not having played competitively in eight weeks, it could just as well have applied to an early morning malaise.

Not that it mattered much to the spectators. For much of the day, this trio was the only show in town.

Walking out to catch them on the 14th, you could see Pablo Larrazabal play the most delicate and beautiful approach on his 10th. At that moment he was leading the day and not more than two souls must have been around watching him do so.

Golf is a solitary, inward battle and here was perhaps a too literal representation of it. At four under, Larrazabal finished the day up near the top.

For golf watching, the weather was perfect: crisp, sunny, a breeze but not the gales that have buffeted the capital over the last week.

For golfing itself, it was not so perfect, not according to Woods in any case.

"There's not a lot of guys going low out there," he said after ending par for the day. "It's tough out there, and you know, these fairways are tiny to begin with, but there are a lot of crosswinds. You seem like you're banking up against the wind pretty much all day."

For all that Woods-McIlroy is the main attraction, and that this was an early sighting of the narrative that will dominate golf this year and more, it was Kaymer who looked the best of the three.

At least he looked the most resolute and consistent on a day and course that - as both Woods and McIlroy said - needed to be toughed out.

Kaymer was not flashy. He has not, like the other two, got a swing that will leave you dead in your tracks, awestruck by its liquid grace.

He was not the one everyone was watching.

He even found water twice, on his 10th and 18th holes, and he only hit three fairways off his drive all day.

And yet quietly, and understandably given his track record here, he looked the most at home of the three.

"One-under par is OK," was how he described it later.

"It's nothing special. I didn't kick myself out of the tournament and I'm not really up there, so it's OK for now."

He also maintained the best poker face throughout.

Woods was particularly expressive; a shanked drive on his 10th (and it was a real howler) produced a little bit of an adult moment.

McIlroy's second shot from the fairway on his ninth, a par 5, hit the stands, requiring a relief free drop.

Not in anger, but in milder frustration, he gently lobbed his club away; newish status, new equipment, new sponsors, poor day.

For the followers there were sudden, unexpected flashes of genius.

Woods sank a putt from the fringes of the green, maybe 30 foot out, to birdie his sixth.

And on their seventh hole, the third last for the day, the pair provided a fleeting and fascinating mini-duel of the kind you hope a true rivalry is built on.

Both had found bunkers on either side of the hole from their drives.

McIlroy's was deeper and farther out. He chipped and only narrowly missed, the ball dribbling tantalisingly along the side of the hole.

This is the kid, it said. Now let us see what the man has got, it asked.

Woods' response was almost but not quite its equal, good for line but perhaps over hit.

In any case, it was not the response of a mere mortal.

Both putted for par.

It was but a flash.

McIlroy ended three strokes behind Woods, but the day was equally underwhelming for both.

 

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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