Rory McIlroy fights back after nightmare opening at the Waste Management Open

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Rory McIlroy - Rory McIlroy fights back after nightmare opening at the Waste Management Open - GETTY IMAGES
Rory McIlroy - Rory McIlroy fights back after nightmare opening at the Waste Management Open - GETTY IMAGES

As he stood on the third tee on three-over in the first round of the Waste Management Open, Rory McIlroy might have been forgiven for fearing that the golfing gods - with all their lofty representatives on Earth - were paying him back for Wednesday’s withering criticisms of the game’s governing bodies.

Yet with a commendable fightback, featuring five birdies and one bogey in the remaining 16 holes, McIlroy rose from the ashes in Phoenix. With the clubhouse leader, Matthew Nesmith, on eight-under, his challenge for what would be his first title in 14 months could hardly be classed as being on fire, but he had, at least, battled his way out of the flames following that nightmare opening two holes comprising a double-bogey and a bogey.

There was another factor to console him at the TPC Scottsdale after he signed for a 71. After going as far as to accuse the R&A and US Golf Associations of “reeking of self-importance” for announcing their intention to curtail hitting distances, McIlroy actually received a conciliatory response from St Andrews HQ.

"We have said all along that we were going to conduct this process openly and invite feedback from serious voices throughout golf,” the R&A said in a joint statement. "So we welcome the contributions from players and others involved in the sport and will take them into consideration as we move forward on this important subject.”

It is accepted that 48in drivers will be banned in the next few months - the maximum is to be reduced to 46in and will, in reality, affect very few pros - but the debate concerning the proposed limitations on the ball and the club-faces will go on until and, of course, after the November deadline.

McIlroy has now put himself at the centre of this saga - which is slightly curious as he has stated his support for the emphasis to be put back on skill rather than technology - and this will be another hot topic on which he will be bombarded in the forthcoming months. The focus surely should be on arresting his majorless run that is running into its seventh season.

At the Saudi International, nobody was more surprised to see David Horsey leading after the first round as the world No 208 himself. The 35-year-old from Stockport shot a nine-under 61, to leave the likes of Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Paul Casey in his shadow.

David Horsey of England reacts on the 18th green during Day One of the Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club - GETTY IMAGES
David Horsey of England reacts on the 18th green during Day One of the Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club - GETTY IMAGES

"It's a shock because I've been playing rubbish the last couple of weeks,” he said. Horsey, whose nickname on the European Tour is “Giddy Up”, did not get off to the fastest start, reaching the turn at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in two-under. But he then reeled off seven birdies in eight holes to grab a shot ahead over Scotland's Stephen Gallacher.

Horsey, a four-time Tour winner but without silverware for five years, actually had a chance on the par-five 18th to record just the second 59 in Tour history. But when going for the pin with his second, he almost pulled it into the water and had to settle for a par.

Gallacher’s 62 was the lowest score of his Tour career and a welcome boost after the former Ryder Cup player endured a difficult 2020, losing several people close to him, including his father Jim following a short illness.

Of the big names in this loaded field where appearance fees are unashamedly aplenty, DeChambeau fared the best, carding seven birdies and two bogeys in his 65, while Johnson, the world No 1, is in a group on three-under including Lee Westwood and Tyrrell Hatton. Casey and Reed, who won on the European Tour and PGA Tour respectively on Sunday, both fired 69s.

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