Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson move in opposite directions in 2018 season debuts

Rory sends a message with a strong 2018 debut in Abu Dhabi while Lefty posts a rare missed cut at La Quinta.

Rory McIlroy may have been something of a forgotten man during his injury-riddled 2017 season but the fit and self-assured golfer who kicked off his 2018 season with a robust T3 finish in the Middle East has a message for his peers: I’m back, baby.

“I putted really well. Hit the ball very well. So all in all, yeah, it was another great round and another really good confidence builder,” the four-time major champion said after shooting a third-round 7-under 65 and before closing at 18-under, four shots back of winner Tommy Fleetwood at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. “Not just for this week but for the rest of the season, as well.”

Meanwhile, 17 hours by private jet away from McIlroy’s convincing start to his season, another big name earned an unusually early exit from his first event of the new year. For sure, Phil Mickelson, who entered the CareerBuilder Challenge with his customary optimism, missed his first cut since 1994 at the tourney.

His birdie on the par-3 17th hole at PGA West’s Stadium Course was one of the few highlights in Saturday’s third round for everybody’s favorite righty who bats from the left.

Indeed, his double-bogey at the par-4 15th after needing two shots to extricate himself from the sheer cliffs of the green side bunker was more indicative of Mickelson’s struggles throughout the week. He completed a discouraging week by finding just four of 14 fairways and nine of 18 greens on his way to a 74 and missing the cut by four shots on his final day in La Quinta .

Lefty (not the only southpaw to miss Sunday’s finale, as Bubba Watson continued his lackluster play from last season with a MC in his first competition of the new campaign) remained upbeat through two rounds in the tournament he has played 15 times and won twice when it was the Bob Hope Classic.

“The scores obviously aren’t what I want, but it’s pretty close and I feel good about my game, I feel like this is a great place to start the year and build a foundation for my game,” Mickelson said after posting a 68 on Friday. “It’s easy to identify the strengths and weaknesses. My iron play has been poor relative to the standards that I have. My driving has been above average. So if I continue to drive like this and get my iron game back, it’s going to be a good year.”

The owner of five major titles, Mickelson has not won since 2013 — the same year as Tiger Woods’ last victory. After completing 54 holes at 4-under — 15 shots back of third-round leader Austin Cook — Mickelson will hope to turn his fortunes around when he joins Woods at Torrey Pines for next week’s Farmers Insurance Open.

McIlroy, for his part, went 69-66-65-70 at Abu Dhabi GC and will remain in the Middle East for Thursday’s start of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic before going stateside two weeks later for the first of three straight U.S. events. He’ll begin at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Genesis Open, and then hit the first event on the Florida Swing at the Honda Classic. Woods is scheduled to compete at the Genesis and it is widely believed he will add the Honda, which is practically in his backyard, to his 2018 calendar.

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