The world number one struggled as he finished up three over for the day on the National Course.
Rory McIlroy 'rusty' but Justin Rose blooming in the wind at Abu Dhabi
At the cool crack of sunrise, the big three were already on the range, preparing for their tee time in the biggest European Tour event of the season to date.
Of course, that meant the gadflies were out, too, including a couple of flitting photographers who were lying in the grass on their stomachs, trying to get a panoramic shot of Tiger Woods as he warmed up, just after daybreak.
The tour player Richie Ramsay sauntered on to the range, took a look at the teeming herd already on hand to chronicle the tournament's feature group, smiled and said: "Well, it is kind of a cool photo, with the sun coming up in the background."
It was the dawn of a new year for playing partners Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer and Woods, the fabulous feature group sent off together today, attracting virtually every ticket holder on the property at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Star-gazing fans had no idea what they missed.
This time, the scorecards of the draw cards were mostly a subplot.
As the trio took turns carving balls into the desert, finding water hazards or bopping tee shots out of bounds, the Britons Justin Rose and Jamie Donaldson experienced no such problems, finishing at 5-under 67 to share the first-round lead at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
"It's a good start to a long year, good start to a long week, but a good start," said Rose, the world No 5, who holed a 50-foot putt and a bunker shot for birdies.
That was not a universal sentiment, of course, since nobody in the feature group sniffed a score that low. Indeed, they finished a combined two over, with the less-heralded Kaymer posting the only score under par with a so-so 71.
The German star, mind you, also whacked two tee shots into water hazards. "It's nothing special," said Kaymer, a three-time winner of the event.
That could have been summary headline, really. For those who believe there is no such thing as rust in the desert, the trio did everything possible to convince them otherwise. McIlroy, in his first outing since signing a reported nine-figure endorsement deal with Nike, sputtered to a 3-over 75 and struggled to find superlatives.
"I guess when you go out and have new stuff," McIlroy said of his 14 new clubs, "you're going to be a little anxious."
So was the gallery, which spent much of the day avoiding the trio's wild tee shots.
They expected a classic power trio like Cream, ZZ Top or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but this looked more like the Jonas Brothers.
Woods, in fact, topped a driver so poorly off the tee on his 10th hole of the day, it skidded perhaps 150 yards and stopped just past the women's tee box and 50 yards short of the fairway.
Caddie Joe LaCava had to walk forward 100 yards to find a sprinkler head, just to get the proper yardage for Woods's next shot.
"Happy I survived it today," said Woods, who three-putted the last hole to shoot 72. "It's really difficult. It seemed like every hole is into a crosswind."
Donaldson, won the Irish Open last year and was joint seventh at the US PGA Championship, and some of his peers found the talk about the stiff breeze to be mostly bluster, if you will.
Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark was five under before he bogeyed the last hole, and there was little grumbling about course conditions emanating from him.
"It was a really steady round and I never really got in trouble out there, so it was good," Olesen said.
The Woods trio, with 17 major championships between them, did plenty of sand surfing. Woods hit one tee shot behind a bush and had to pitch out sideways, found five fairways – one on the back nine – and hit a series of dead yanks off the tee. He will be a dead Yank in terms of contention if his next three rounds aren't more polished.
"I'm still right there in the ballgame," said Woods, who finished third here last year.
That is not the case for McIlroy, who could be flirting with the cutline tomorrow. Ideally, nobody will be making snap judgements based on one sloppy day with his new tool set.
"I'm not overly concerned," said McIlroy, who won his last start eight weeks ago in Dubai in scintillating fashion, but had two double-bogeys today.
"Hopefully, I can play a little better tomorrow."
For any of the trio, that won't be too difficult, really.
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