With Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods struggling, unheralded Jamie Donaldson took the spotlight at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship on Thursday, shooting an opening-round 5-under 67 for an early one-shot lead.
McIlroy, playing with new clubs following his multimillion dollar sponsorship deal with Nike, finished with a 3-over 75 and risks missing the cut. He repeatedly missed fairways including a shot on his 12th that hit a tree and ended up in a parking lot, leading to one of his two double bogeys. His other double bogey came when he muffed a chip in thick rough on his par-3 6th. He also putted poorly, missing a par putt on his 17th and a birdie putt on the 18th.
Mclroy insisted his difficulties had more to do with rusty strokes than the new equipment. While he repeatedly slumped after a bad shot or frowned following a missed putt, the 2012 European Tour and U.S. PGA Tour money winner seemed resigned to the fact that it would take time for him to adjust to the new Nike clubs.
"When you go out and you've got new stuff, you are going to be a little anxious and hopefully you play well," McIlroy said. "But I guess I can learn from it and move on and go into tomorrow and try and play a bit better. It's about playing yourself into the weekend."
Woods, meanwhile, finished a rollercoaster round at even par after "grinding it out." The 14-time major winner had four birdies to go along with four bogeys and ended his round by three-putting his 18th for a bogey when he hit the second putt too hard.
"I'm still right there," said Woods, who was five shots behind Donaldson. "You know, if I two-putt that last hole I'm in I think 12th or 13th or something like that. There's not a lot of guys going low out there. These fairways are tiny to begin with, but there are a lot of crosswinds."
Woods can thank his short game and putter for salvaging the round, saving par on several occasions and sinking several long birdie putts. He made three birdies on the last four holes of his front nine. But he lost that momentum on the back nine, when he mishit a tee shot that led to a bogey on 10, and couldn't hole a short par putt on his 11th.
"I put something up there and lost it," Woods said of his bogeys on the back. "I had another chance at 3 to make another bogey in row and made a good save there. That kind of got it going a little bit. But it was tough out there. I didn't hit it that well. On top of that, this wind just magnifies it. You really have to control your ball today."
It was left to the 47th-ranked Donaldson to show how to overcome the wind and master the narrow fairways. He had six birdies — including holing a bunker shot on his 12th — to go along with a bogey. The Welshman is one shot clear of Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark and Pablo Larrazabal of Spain. Three others including Henrik Stenson of Sweden are a further shot back in fourth.
"Solid start, played some pretty good golf out there," said Donaldson, who was looking for his second European Tour victory. "Obviously 5 under is a great start. I played pretty good in most of the round but there were times when it wasn't quite on, we made some good up and downs. It was a matter of scoring well and keeping the momentum going."