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Crowded at the Top at Doral
On a balmy, benign day in Miami, five players fired 6-under 66s to share the lead following 18 holes of the WGC-Cadillac Championship. The $8.75 million PGA Tour event started Thursday on the TPC Blue Monster Course at Doral.
Tied for the top spot are Americans Tiger Woods and Bubba Watson, Freddie (formerly Fredrik) Jacobson of Sweden, Spain's Sergio Garcia and Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell.
Woods, who won the Farmers Insurance Open in late January for his 75th Tour title, carded nine birdies and three bogeys. "It warmed up, the ball started to fly (and) the wind was up, but not majorly," he said at greenside. "Today was as easy as it gets around this place."
The No. 2-ranked player in the world was paired in the opening round with No. 1 Rory McIlroy and former No. 1 Luke Donald. Woods owed his fine play to a putting tip from good friend Steve Stricker. It worked as Woods' nine birdies in a single round were one short of his personal-best of 10 on the PGA Tour, which he's accomplished twice.
"Whatever (Stricker) says, I'm going to do," said Woods, who needed only 23 putts Thursday. "He's one of the best putters that's ever lived. He can see things that are off a little bit because he knows my stroke so well. Did it help me today? Yes, it did, certainly. It was nice to be able to hit putts like that again today."
Woods also joked, "I think I'm going to have a contract with him because he's only going to play, what, five tournaments this year. I'll bring him out in his off-weeks. That's what friends do. Friends help each other out."
In addition to a bogey, Jacobson carded three birdies and a pair of eagles - both on par-5s, the eighth and 10th holes. Garcia's six-birdie card was much cleaner. Watson, the 2012 Masters' champion, was also nearly spotless, with seven birdies and just one dropped shot on the par-4 third hole.
McDowell, who also had six birdies - three each on the front and back sides - agreed with Woods that the Miami weather was ideal for going low. "The conditions were such, if you played smart, you could make some birdies today," the 2010 U.S. Open champion said at greenside.
Conversely, McIlroy wasn't able to take advantage of the calm day. The 23-year-old, two-time major winner, who's still in an adjustment phase with his new Nike clubs, posted six bogeys, three birdies and an eagle on the par-5 first hole (his 10th) for a 1-over 73.
McIlroy was back in competition for the first time since last Friday at the Honda Classic, where he departed after only eight holes of the second round, citing tooth pain. "It was a bit of a struggle," he told reporters of his opening round at Doral. "This is a work in progress, and I'm working at it and I'm staying patient."
He also said he wasn't quite as hard on himself Thursday as he'd been in recent rounds. In addition to the Honda Classic WD - which drew a lot of flak from media observers, he didn't make the cut in his season opener in Abu Dhabi and was ousted in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship last month in Arizona.
"I wasn't putting as much pressure on myself and that's why I didn't get as frustrated," McIlroy said. "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.
"It was nice to sneak in a couple birdies on the last three holes and make it look somewhat respectable, even though everyone seems to be going pretty low out there," he added. "I've got another three rounds to try and work on it a bit more and shoot a few good scores and see what happens."
Sharing sixth after 67s are Hunter Mahan, Peter Hanson, Phil Mickelson and Stricker. Mickelson had the shot of the day at Doral. After his tee shot on the 419-yard, par-4 17th hit the cart path and rolled on and on for a total of 450 yards, he decided to hit off the concrete instead of taking a drop. His 35-yard chip shot ended up 10 feet from the cup and he then drained the putt for his final birdie of the day.
"It's actually a very easy golf shot," "Lefty" said, giving TV viewers an impromptu lesson. "The ball is going to come out five yards longer. I had 30 yards to the front edge, so I just hit a 30-yard shot. I actually hit the cart path first.
"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, I kind of knew what was going to happen," he added.
Keegan Bradley, Ian Poulter, Bo Van Pelt, Dustin Johnson, Charles Howell III and defending champion Justin Rose all carded 4-under 68s at the fabled Blue Monster course. Rose played steadily, with a pair of birdies each on the front and back halves.
Posting 69s for a share of 16th were Rickie Fowler, Thailand's Thaworn Wiratchant, Jason Dufner, Nick Watney, John Senden, Geoff Ogilvy, Michael Thompson and Alexander Noren. Thompson won his first PGA Tour title last week at the Honda Classic.
It wasn't easy for everyone Thursday. Ninth-ranked Lee Westwood shot a 73, PGA champion Martin Kaymer a 76, and three-time major winner Padraig Harrington had a 78 in the tournament reserved for the world's top-64 players.
For all the scores, visit http://www.worldgolfchampionships.com/cadillac-championship/leaderboard.html.