Rory McIlroy found himself in a spot that must have seemed vaguely familiar Thursday in the HSBC Champions.
He was in the lead.
McIlroy looked more like a two-time major champion than someone who hasn’t won all year. He rarely had any stress and opened with a 7-under 65, building a two-shot lead after one round of this World Golf Championship.
“It felt good to be out there and in control of my golf ball,” McIlroy said. “If only one round, 18 holes. But it’s definitely the way I wanted and needed to start.”
Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, coming off a win last week in the BMW Masters across town, and Jamie Donaldson each had 67. US Open champion Justin Rose and Jordan Spieth, starting his second full season on the PGA Tour, were among those at 68.
British Open champion Phil Mickelson had a chance to join McIlroy in the lead until it all went wrong. One shot behind with two holes to play, Mickelson hit two wedges into the water fronting the par-5 eighth green and took a quadruple-bogey 9. His second wedge landed some 30 feet beyond the pin and had so much spin that it raced off the green and down the bank into the water.
He hit another shot into the water on No. 9, and followed that with a brave shot to 2 feet to escape with only a bogey. He fell back to a 71.
But this day ultimately was about McIlroy, who started the season at No. 1 in the world and fell into a slump that has lasted longer than usual. He started the week with his first win of the year – OK, it was an 18-hole exhibition against Tiger Woods – though he carried that form to Sheshan International.
“It’s obviously different playing in an environment like that and coming out here trying to win this golf tournament, even though I did hold off Tiger Woods down the stretch,” McIlroy said, laughing at the mock importance he placed on that exhibition.
It was the first time McIlroy held the outright lead after any round this year. He was part of a seven-way tie for the lead at the Wells Fargo Championship in early May. His only better score this year was a 64 in the third round of the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston, though conditions were soft that day.
“But this is probably better, just because it was a little trickier conditions,” McIlroy said. “There was a bit of breeze, and you’ve got to play good golf to shoot 7-under around this place.”
His lone bogey came on his second hole, No. 11, when his tee shot plugged into the face of the bunker. He holed a 6-foot par putt on the par-3 fourth hold to avoid a three-putt bogey, and that was one of his goals for the round.
His driving made him look like the McIlroy of old, though it has been solid since he returned from a four-week break in Korea two weeks ago. His short game carried him, especially during a stretch around the turn when he made four birdies in a five-hole stretch.
McIlroy hit a 3-wood just over the back of the par-4 16th hole and chipped to 3 feet for birdie. His 3-iron from light rough was about 20 yards short of the green on the par-5 18th, and he chipped to 5 feet for birdie. And on the par-5 second hole, another 3-iron from the rough left him 30 yards short, and he pitched that to 6 feet for birdie.
The other birdie during that stretch was on No. 1, his only tee shot off line. From the rough, his 9-iron from 160 yards covered the flag and settled about 7 feet away.
“It’s just learning from each week and just trying to put the pieces together,” McIlroy said. “A little bit of confidence from Monday, of course, but I think it was these two previous weeks just getting back into competitive play and learning what I needed to do to improve and sort of work on those things coming into this week.”
Fernandez-Castano was impressive at Lake Malaren for his first win of the year, and he kept right on form. The Spaniard moved up to No. 4 in the Race to Dubai, with an US$8.5 million purse, and he is still in the hunt to catch Henrik Stenson atop the money list.
The surprise might have been Spieth, the 20-year-old American who has been unwinding at home in Texas while buying a house and planning for a two-month break. This is his first trip to China, and he was struggling with jet lag earlier in the week after arriving Monday.
Spieth hit into the water – it didn’t have a chance – on the par-3 17th and was 2-over, hopeful to get back to par by the end of the round. He birdied the next two holes and kept right on going.
“Felt right back at the end of last season the way I was swinging and putting,” Spieth said. “It was really nice to get those feelings back. Just took a few holes to do it.”
He charmed the Chinese along the way, especially when asked if he had any plans for Halloween as a young player.
“I guess ... do people dress up as Americans or anything?” he said. “Maybe American sports player?”