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Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Updated: January 30, 12:27 PM ET
Driver key in Rory (63) vs. Tiger (68)

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- As the strobe lights flashed and the music blared and the financial future of Rory McIlroy was all but secured with one signature, there were plenty of skeptical observers who wondered what the lucrative deal would mean for his golf game.

Ninety miles down the road from here in Abu Dhabi, McIlroy signed the famous Nike endorsement deal just over a year ago, pledging to switch all 14 clubs in his bag soon after going to No. 1 in the world, setting the stage for all sorts of conjecture.

McIlroy
Rory McIlroy picked up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic right where he left off two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi. The Northern Irishman, who finished T-2 two weeks ago, shot a bogey-free 63 at the Emirates Golf Club to grab the first-round lead Thursday.

Opinions varied widely on what a change in equipment would mean -- nothing, everything and all manner of thoughts in between -- but clearly the results were poor as McIlroy had myriad things going on that saw him drop from the No. 1 ranking and fail to win until the end of 2013.

Now look at him.

Around the time of Korean Open last November, McIlroy switched to a different Nike driver and ball. (For the equipment geeks, it was a VR_S Covert 2.0 and an RZN black ball.) Players tinker and experiment all the time, and it is wrong to say that one product is necessarily better than the other.

But getting the right mix is part of being a top pro, and McIlroy seemingly has found it. His drives seemingly soar as high as the Dubai skyscrapers, allowing him to take advantage of his enormous length off the tee to set up birdie chances and grab a 2-shot lead after the first round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

The result Thursday at Emirates Golf Club was his best official score in more than three years, a 9-under-par 63 that looked easy. One round does not make a year, but this followed on his recent successes, including a victory at the Australian Open and a runner-up finish two weeks ago in Abu Dhabi.

"You can see how I'm driving it," McIlroy said. "I'm leaving myself a lot of wedges into the green."

Tiger Woods saw how McIlroy drove it during the opening round, and while Woods would never admit it, he had to wonder how much better things would be for himself if he could find the fairway with such frequency.

Woods managed a 68 that was a testament to his immense scrambling ability and moxie. He hit just seven of the 14 fairways yet managed to make four birdies and no bogeys to sit in 10th place. While McIlroy never appeared in danger of making a bogey, Woods was fortunate to avoid any such numbers on his scorecard.

It was 12 times zones and half the world removed from a horrible Saturday round at Torrey Pines that saw him shoot one of his five worst rounds as a pro. Woods proved that his 79 during the third round of the Farmers Insurance Open was the aberration many suspected.

The No. 1-ranked player in the world looked much better Thursday, putting with nice pace, hitting solid iron shots, managing to get up and down for par eight times.

But it's the tee shot -- specifically the driver -- that continues to haunt.

Yes, it's early in the season and Woods is far from being in major championship form. But the driver has been an issue for several years, and good scoring can't be sustained with the inconsistency on display in the desert.

"It's my old pattern again," Woods said. "With my last coach, it was a push-block. We tried to get out of that and go to a cut [a ball that curves from left to right]. It's harder to aim [more to the] right knowing that I've got to cut it.

"Last year all my misses were in the left rough. But they were all straight balls. It was dead straight because I aimed it there. Trying to aim down the right side of the fairway is a little harder. When I get it [correct], I hit these bullet cuts that go forever. And I started getting that toward the end [of the round]. At the beginning of the round, I was in that old pattern. Aim left and hit it. None of them overhooked. It just started left and stayed there."

Old coach: Hank Haney. New coach: Sean Foley -- although it has been 3½ years. Woods has often lamented falling into old habits, and it is only fair to point out that he won six major championships and 31 PGA Tour events under Haney's guidance.

The simple explanation is Woods wants to aim down the left side and watch the ball fade into the fairway. Fine -- except for when the ball goes straight, as it did several times during the opening round.

Woods hit his driver eight times, and found just two fairways with it. One was at the par-5 18th hole, where he took a mighty swipe, the ball coming out awkwardly, high and fading to the right. He was at least 60 yards behind McIlroy, so far that you wondered if Woods used a 3-wood off tee.

Still, Woods knocked his long-iron approach on the green and made birdie, his last of the day. On the front side, he hit four more drivers, found just one fairway and made no birdies.

For the day, Woods hit just seven of 14 fairways and only 10 greens.

McIlroy hit 12 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens.

"He's experienced, he's a true pro," McIlroy said of Woods. "He knows there are no pictures on the scorecard and he started hitting it a lot better at the end of the round. But to shoot the score he shot on our front nine was a good effort."

That was a nice way of saying Woods had no business shooting 4 under par hitting it where he did.

Woods has always been the master at turning a 71 into a 68 and that's probably what he did Thursday. He lamented leaving a few out there, but other than failing to get up and down at the par-5 third for a birdie, there were no obvious places where he truly blew an opportunity.

Last month at the World Challenge, Woods also put a new driver into play, the Covert 2.0 that has a heavier shaft. You might recall he shot 62 during the second round and had a look at birdie on every hole, only once having to save par with a 10-footer.

"I'm able to draw this driver so much better, which is nice," Woods said last week at Torrey Pines. "I still need maybe just a little more work on being able to cut it."

That was after the first round in California, and his words have proved more than prophetic.

Of course, as with everything related to Woods, there is so much scrutiny of every swing, every round, every tournament. He might hit it flush Friday or he might hit it crooked. That's part of golf and doesn't necessarily mean anything going forward.

But getting that driver sorted out could be the key to his year, and he's got McIlroy right there again Friday to remind him.