Playing only his sixth round of the year, Adam Scott faced a strong test Thursday at Doral and never looked better.
In fierce and relentless wind on the TPC Blue Monster at Doral, Scott kept the ball in play and then hung on for dear life for a 6-under 66 that gave him a share of the lead with Jason Dufner in the Cadillac Championship.
"When you're in the fairway on a day like today, you get a chance to hit it somewhere near the hole, give yourself an opportunity," Scott said. "If you're in the rough, it's very hard to even just hit the green, let alone give yourself a chance. I took advantage of the good shots early on, and then battled by way in from there."
It was a battle all day for Rory McIlroy in his first event at No. 1 in the world. He twice flirted with the water, had a three-putt bogey and wound up with a 73.
Tiger Woods wasn't much better. He began his round with a tap-in eagle on the par-5 first hole, but narrowly missed the fairways and had a tough time figuring out the wind and whether the ball would jump out of the rough. Woods badly misjudged the line of his chip on the 18th hole and closed with a bogey for a 72.
It wasn't a devastating start for either of them.
Only a dozen players managed to break 70, and a dozen more broke par. The average score was 72.7, and no hole was more terrifying that the par-4 18th, which was 471 yards dead into the wind, water hugging the entire left side of the hole and front of the green.
The average score was 4.74, which was more than three of the par 5s.
"I hit 3-wood into 18, par 4, and 7-iron into the first, which is a par 5," Luke Donald said after a 70. "Just a beast of a hole today."
Masters champion Charl Schwartzel made a par, and his reaction spoke volumes.
"Felt like an eagle," he said. "It's one of those where you just really have to take it on. There's nowhere out. I probably hit my best tee shot of the day down there, a beautiful 5-iron and ran off there with a 4. I'm very happy."
Schwartzel and Thomas Bjorn were at 68, while the group at 69 included PGA champion Keegan Bradley and Steve Stricker, who was tied for the lead through 12 holes and dropped three shots in the final hour.
"The course is playable. You can see it in the scores," Stricker said. "It's still playable, whether we have this kind of wind or not. So it's manageable out there, and you just have to play hard and play well."
Sergio Garcia had the ugliest finish of all.
The Spaniard was one shot out of the lead through 12 holes. He didn't hit a fairway the rest of the way, nor did he make so much as a par. He followed five straight bogeys by hitting two shots into the water on the 18th and taking triple bogey. Over that six-hole stretch, Garcia went from being 5-under par to signing for a 75.
Dufner made bogey on the 18th, but that was the middle of his round. He took advantage of the downwind holes on the front side with birdies, then holed a birdie putt from just inside 30 feet on the fourth. He closed out his round with a 7-iron to about a foot.
"A lot easier to finish on nine than 18," Dufner said.
Scott also finished on the par-3 ninth hole. He was hitting the ball so well in the early part of his round that when someone asked him how caddie Steve Williams helped him, Scott smiled and said, "He just got out of my way today. I didn't ask too much of Steve out there today. I just aimed down the middle and hit it there."
Scott also had a short eagle putt on No. 1, and twice made solid par saves. His lone bogey came from a bunker on the sixth hole, where he missed a 4-foot par putt.
It's a slow start to the year for the Australian, who is trying to keep himself fresh and get more out of his practice time. Scott didn't start the year until Riviera, where he tied for 17th. At the Match Play Championship, he lost in the opening round. He took another week off, spending his time in San Diego, and came out to the wind tunnel that is Doral.
"I knew a good score was going to happen because every part of my game was feeling good," Scott said. "You've got to take away the expectation and just let it happen. But I wasn't too concerned."
Lee Westwood, playing alongside McIlroy and Donald in the traditional 1-2-3 group from the top of the world ranking, had a 76.
McIlroy was coming off a couple of big weeks — reaching the Match Play Championship final with a chance to go to No. 1, then winning the Honda Classic to get to the top of the ranking, all while Woods fired a 62 at him in the final round.
McIlroy said he was mentally flat.
"It's tough," he said. "When you're working, you've got Arizona and you've got a chance to go to world No. 1, and then Honda, you've got a chance ... then all of a sudden you're there, and you're like, 'What do you do?' I just need to go out and set myself a target tomorrow and try and post a number."
Woods made consecutive eagles, though they were four days apart on different courses. He finished the Honda Classic with an eagle, and started that way at Doral. The rest of the day wasn't that easy.
"It was just a difficult day," Woods said. "The wind was blowing putts around, and it made for a very challenging round."
Woods was hardly out of the mix. The wind is expected to blow most of the week, from a similar direction, meaning most of the par 5s can be reached in two, and some of the par 4s and be brutal.
"When you wake up on a day like this when it's this windy, you know that you have to play solid golf and keep the big mistakes off the scorecard," Bjorn said. "That's the crucial part, and I did that today."