McIlroy birdied the last two holes to fire a bogey-free, seven-under 63 to take a one-shot lead after the first round of the Honda Classic. Instead of the kid with a “toothache” who left in a tantrum, the world no. 8 resembled more of the confident, laid-back kid who won this tournament two years ago to ascend to the world no. 1 player.
It was refreshing to see McIlroy back in his element, with last year’s mishap now behind him.
“I played really solid,” he said. “I think the key around here this week is every week that we play here is hitting fairways and hitting greens. It’s a golf course that if you it’s a good ballstriker’s golf course. If you can really keep your ball in play and give yourself plenty of birdie chances, that’s sort of the name of the game here. I made a good par save on 9 which sort of kept that bogey-free round alive.”
Then, McIlroy proceeded to make three consecutive birdies on nos. 10-12, draining putts measuring 8, 45 and 14 feet, respectively.
He played the notorious “Bear Trap” (nos. 15-17) at one-under, rolling in a 12-footer for birdie on no. 17. On the final hole, the reachable-in-two par-5, he knocked his second shot in the front bunker and hit it out to about five feet. No problem for Rory, whose stroke looked solid all day — he drained the putt confidently.
“I didn’t hit a great second shot but hit a really nice bunker shot there and yeah, it was nice to finish with a birdie,” said McIlroy, who resides down the road from PGA National. “It’s a hole that you want to take advantage of and there was a little bit of left-to-right in this putt and just put it right in the middle.”
This was the first time McIlroy escaped PGA National without a bogey.
“Not surprised,” he said. “It’s a tough track. I don’t think many guys have probably gone bogey-free around this place. But yeah, it’s nice. It’s a great way to start the week obviously and try and keep the bogeys off my card as much as I can.”
Well, he’s certainly off to a great start. On his way to his career-low 63 at this track, McIlroy hit 10 of 14 fairways, 14 of 18 greens in regulation and only needed 25 putts. Not too shabby!
McIlroy said he didn’t think about the unfortunate “toothache” incident from last year and it didn’t feel like he was putting to rest any demons. In fact, it didn’t even cross his mind.
“It’s not something I really thought about out there,” said McIlroy, referring to his walk-off last year. “You know, coming in this week, I knew that I was playing well and I just wanted to try and get off to a good start.
“I’ve been able to do that the first couple of stroke play tournaments this year where I’ve got off to fast starts and got myself into contention, haven’t quite converted those in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but wanted to try and do the same here and it was nice to do it, regardless of what happened last year or where it is, it’s always nice to shoot a round like this and get yourself in the mix early.”
Like I mentioned, he was more like the kid who won here two years ago.
“I think that the thing about that week when I won, I was very consistent, I would shoot a 4-under, another 4-under and maybe a 5-under, whatever it was,” said McIlroy. “So, yeah, I feel like I’m playing well enough to do something like that again. But as I said, I was in control of my ball all day. I didn’t miss many fairways. I didn’t miss many greens. Gave myself plenty of chances for birdies and I was able to take a few.
“Yeah, do I feel like I’m playing better than I did then, I couldn’t really tell you. Don’t really remember. But I feel like I’m playing well.”
McIlroy looked relaxed playing alongside Billy Horschel and Adam Scott. On the par-3 15th, Scott knocked his tee shot in the water and as he and Horschel waited for Scott to make his drop and play his shot, Rory was showing Horschel something he was doing with his swing.
“He just said, ‘It looks like you’re swinging really well.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m feeling very comfortable with it.’ I was just telling him a few things.”
McIlroy’s swing started to click when he traveled to Asia last fall — around the same time he switched to a new Nike ball and driver.
“When I went and did the Asian Swing in October, November time, I felt like stuff was starting to click into place with my swing,” recalled Rory. “I started well at the tournament in Shanghai, shot 65 and ended up finishing sixth. Had a top 5 in Dubai. Went down to Australia and won.
“So it was gradually getting better and better, and the work that I put in the offseason has only just helped that and helped it along, and I’ve reached a point now where I’m very comfortable with everything in my game and my swing. Seeing shots the way I want to see them. You know, when I do that, I feel like the scores are just a byproduct of all the hard work and making good swings.”
There you have it, a year later, McIlroy is back in the swing of things. Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that all is well in his personal life.
“I’m in a great place,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier. We’ve got a home here in Palm Beach. Personal life is great. Looking forward to getting married at some point in the future, and you know, I feel like if everything’s settled off the course, then it helps me perform better on it. Yeah, I couldn’t be in a better place right now.”
Here’s hoping for three more fine rounds.
Meanwhile, Russell Henley is Rory’s closest competitor, who shot a very respectable six-under 64. Rory Sabbatini, Will McGirt and Jamie Donaldson all fired solid five-under 65s. Tiger Woods, who shot one-over 71, is currently T81, which puts him outside the cut line — he’ll need a good round tomorrow to see weekend play. Good news if he MCs, the commute home is short and easy!