DORAL, Fla. — Aided by some putting tips from Steve Stricker, Tiger Woods made nine birdies on Thursday and grabbed a share of the first-round lead at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, shooting a 6-under 66 that easily could have been lower.
Top-ranked Rory McIlroy wasn’t so fortunate. The mid-round walk-off behind him, McIlroy stepped back into his other woes Thursday, again showing the poor form that led to his frustration a week ago up the road in Palm Beach Gardens, this time shooting a 1-over 73 that included two late birdies.
Woods, meanwhile, holed four birdie putts longer than 15 feet and overcame three bogeys to share the lead with reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson, Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia and Fredrik Jacobson.
He played one of his best rounds of the year, shooting the 66 despite a three-putt bogey and a few relatively short birdie misses. But he made nine birdies, his most in a round since the first round of September’s BMW Championship.
“I felt we needed to shoot at least a couple under on each side to be right there,” Woods said. “I got a few more.”
Woods spent considerable time on the practice putting green Wednesday working with Stricker, one of the game’s best putters, who helped with his posture.
“Whatever he says, I’m going to do,” Woods said. “He’s one of the best putters who has ever lived.”
Starting on the 10th hole, Woods made birdies at the 11th and 12th, followed by bogeys at the 13th and 14th. He finished the back side with birdies at Nos. 16 and 18, then added two more at the first and second holes. After a bogey at the third, Woods birdied three of the last six holes.
Most of the elite 65-player field was under par on the Blue Monster course at Trump Doral; McIlroy was not one of them.
“It was a bit of a struggle, to be honest,” McIlroy said. “Hit some good shots, hit some not-so good shots. As I’ve been saying, this is a work in progress and I’m working at it and I’m staying patient. … I just had to play each hole as it come. Just shoot the best score possible.”
Playing alongside world No. 2 Woods and No. 3 Luke Donald (who shot 70), McIlroy had a stretch of three consecutive bogeys after an eagle at No. 1, his 10th of the day.
McIlroy, 23, is coming off a tumultuous week that saw him quit mid-round March 1 at the Honda Classic, where he was 7 over through eight holes. A combination of poor golf, high expectations and a bothersome wisdom tooth contributed to the abrupt exit, which played out publicly for several days.
All along, McIlroy has said he’s been struggling with his swing entering the year, and that did not change Thursday. An issue with his backswing has caused a lack of confidence and inconsistency, apparent by some unusual takeaway rehearsals.
He hit just 3 of 14 fairways and only 10 of 17 greens.
The good news for McIlroy is that after a missed cut in Abu Dhabi, a first-round defeat at the WGC-Accenture Match Play and the withdrawal at the Honda, he’s assured of playing four rounds here; the tournament does not have a 36-hole cut.
“I wasn’t putting as much pressure on myself, and that’s why I didn’t get as frustrated,” McIlroy said of his round Thursday. “If I had played like that last week, I would have been not so happy, but I understand it’s a work in progress and I’m working at it and it will come together pretty soon.”
After the five-way tie at the top, four players are tied for sixth: Stricker, Phil Mickelson, Peter Hanson and Hunter Mahan. There were 40 players under par.
Garcia and McDowell had bogey-free rounds and both birdied the same four holes. Jacobson made two eagles in a span of three holes, both times hitting a 5-wood onto the green to just over 12 feet.
Watson played in the group with Mickelson and Stricker, and they were a collective 16-under par.
Stricker had a chance to tie for the lead except he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the final hole. Mickelson, as usual, kept it entertaining. He pulled his tee shot on the 17th hole and his ball stopped rolling after it traveled some 450 yards. He purposely took a free drop on the cart path to avoid the rough, and chipped that to about 5 feet for birdie.
“You hit the ball in as much trouble as I do off the tee, you learn to hit those kinds of shots and have enough practice at it,” he said. “I knew what was going to happen.”
The fairways were firm and running fast, allowing the Blue Monster to play shorter. The average score was 70.8, and only 16 players in the 65-man field were over par.
“This course is playing pretty firm, so if you hit it in the fairway, it’s not going to be a ton of long shots,” Jacobson said. “Tough thing is if you’re in the rough, you don’t get any control on the ball from this grass. It makes it really difficult to stop the ball, and if you miss the green, it’s pretty tricky around here.”