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Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Updated: January 17, 6:56 PM ET
Rusty beginnings for Rory McIlroy

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- Amid the fireworks and water fountains and glitz of his first official night as a Nike endorser, Rory McIlroy put up a polished, predictable front when questions turned to the considerable spotlight that now shines upon him.

Certainly, with millions of dollars being paid to him, with all the hype and hoopla surrounding his switch to Nike equipment, there would be some level of trying to prove his worth. It's only natural, a human fallback position. How could it not be?

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy's woes were well-documented in Round 1 of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. He carded two double-bogeys in an opening round of 3-over-par 75 on Thursday.

McIlroy, of course, said all the right things. That nobody puts more pressure on him that he does himself. That the desire to succeed and accumulate trophies is a far greater motivator than any endorsement, or any need to justify all those dollars, pounds, euros (or, in the UAE, dirhams.)

Then the first official round of the new year rolled around, and McIlroy would be using those clubs in competition for the first time on Thursday, and the No. 1 golfer in the world struggled and …

Well, yeah, there were going to be some growing pains.

"That was the first time I'd used the new clubs with a scorecard in my hands, so it was a case of learning a few things," McIlroy said after an opening-round 75 in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship left him 8 strokes back of the lead. "It's a little different because on the range you can just wheel away and everything is fine. It's a little different on the course."

McIlroy hit just five fairways and the new driver he raved about earlier in the week once sent a tee shot out of bounds Thursday. He hit 12 greens in regulation, which isn't terrible, but not good enough if you're going to take 31 putts.

It was a scratchy, sloppy day and even after just one round will inevitably lead to talk that McIlroy was making a mistake by leaving Titleist and the brand of clubs he has played for most of his life.

Of course, it shouldn't. And that's why McIlroy needs to develop a thick skin, not worry about the doubters, stand firm in the wake of criticism. It is easy to blame clubs for a bad round, but McIlroy had his share of clunkers with the old sticks that won him two major championships and got him to No. 1 in the world.

"I think [the problems off the tee] was to do with the swing rather than the club," he said. "I was a little bit rusty. But I felt my iron play was pretty good apart from the shot at the 15th [a par-3 where his tee shot sailed 40 yards right of the green]. I hit a nice shot into the last [the ninth] and hit a nicely flighted 7-iron into the sixth hole. So there are some positive signs out there."

Although indications are that McIlroy knew he'd be making the switch as far back as September, the transition period has not been that long.

It is hard to imagine McIlroy working with the new clubs much when he still had tournaments to play and was contractually obligated to use the old ones. He visited Nike's testing center in Forth Worth, Texas, and got hooked up with all manner of apparatus to lock in launch angles and swing speeds and all the other technical stuff professional golfers endure to try and get their equipment just right.

Still, there were the holidays to deal with and spending time with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, whose tennis career took her to Australia -- and where McIlroy joined her.

This being the first tournament of the year, McIlroy was excited to get started, but the Nike shindig on Monday had to be exhausting -- he did more than a dozen one-on-one interviews as part of it, preceded by a rehearsal. Then there was the European Ryder Cup captain announcement Tuesday, with McIlroy playing a part in Paul McGinley getting selected.

There's already a bit of a burnout factor a few days into the week, the excitement of the new season, the pressure to perform … and yet, in golf, players shoot 75. It happens, new clubs or not.

"A bit of rust for sure, not playing any competitive golf for eight weeks," McIlroy said. "I guess when you're going out with new stuff, you're always going to be a little bit anxious and you're trying to hit it close like you've done on the range, and today that wasn't quite the case."

The excitement of the opening-round grouping with Tiger Woods and, to a lesser extent, European Ryder Cup hero Martin Kaymer was diminished with a series of wayward tee shots and poor scores. McIlroy, Woods and Kaymer combined to hit just 13 fairways and were a 2 over par as a group.

McIlroy and Woods, hailed as buddies who would carry the Nike banner together, barely spoke.

"We didn't really talk a lot out there because we were grinding so hard to put up a score," said Woods, who shot 72. "You look at the scoreboard and a lot of guys are not going low. This is a very difficult golf course with this type of wind."

No doubt, the conditions were tricky. There was barely a breath of wind here last year when McIlroy was runner-up to Robert Rock and Woods finished tied for third. But the wind blew hard during the practice rounds, and although it was considerably less a factor Thursday, still caused problems.

And yes, Wales' Jamie Donaldson managed a 5-under-par 67, as did England's Justin Rose, who seems poised to pick up where he left off at the end of 2012. A slew of players broke par. Woods has some work to do to get back into the tournament, and McIlroy might need to go low just to make the 36-hole cut.

Regardless of what happens, it is way too early to make any hasty judgments about McIlroy's clubs and the merits of switching to them.

It'll likely happen anyway, which means McIlroy will have the added burden of standing firm, being committed.

"I've got here and then four weeks off to work on my game," said McIlroy, who won't play again until the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at the end of February. "My main concern is to do some work now and get ready for tomorrow and try to make the weekend."