Rory McIlroy might have walked off last year but for much of yesterday it looked as though he was about to turn the Honda Classic into another of his triumphal processions.
So comfortable is the 24-year old Co Down man with his game again – he reckons he hasn’t hit it as well since he won the US PGA and two FedEx Cup events in a magical four-week spell 18 months ago – that he looks all but unbeatable on a demanding PGA National track that is tailor-made for his high-octane game.
The Holywood star marked the first anniversary of the meltdown by coming back from a sloppy start to add a sublime 66 to his opening 63 to take the clubhouse lead on 11-under-par 129.
He was one stroke clear of Zimbabwe's Brendon de Jonge, who bogeyed his final hole for a 64, with Russell Henley two behind after a 68 and Lee Westwood (65) and Russell Knox, who also shot 63, three back on seven under.
Finish the job
The challenge now for McIlroy is to finish the job after failing to take advantage of fast starts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai earlier this year. "This is the second straight tournament I've opened with a 63 so if I can keep building on these good starts, then hopefully I can start converting them into wins," he said before admitting that he was trying too hard and displayed poor course management when failing to convert the halfway lead in Dubai into a victory.
Comparing last year’s damp squib to this week’s fireworks, he said: “It’s different end of the spectrum I guess. I wasn’t quite comfortable with my golf swing [last year].
“I was still tinkering with equipment. I just wasn’t feeling in control of what I needed to be in control of. This year is obviously a lot different. I’ve got off to a good start, I’m confident, I’m playing well.”
For the second year running, he started his second round poorly but rather than imploding, he blossomed. On a cool, damp morning, poor drives on his first four holes led to bogeys at the 11th and 12th (his second and third) and he had to hole a six-footer for par at the 14th just to avoid going three over for the day.
The sand save seemed to settle him down and he was soon into his stride, making a brilliant birdie from eight feet at the 16th before holing a tricky 12-footer for another at the par-five 18th to get back to level for the day.
In the groove
Intimidating when he's in the groove with the long clubs, he's even more ominous when he's putting well and his tally of just 49 putts for the first 36 holes – 25 on Thursday and only 24 yesterday – is bad news for the opposition.
Armed with a lethal blade, he played a 10-hole stretch in the middle of his round from the 16th to the seventh in six-under par and raced home in just 31 blows.
Robbed at the second when his 40-footer did a complete 360 around the rim and stayed out, he made a facile looking hat-trick of birdies from the third, saved par from six feet at the sixth after a blocked drive and then made another birdie from 30 feet at the par-three seventh to open up four-shot lead.
"I'm confident and 49 putts is one of the lowest putting totals after 36 I've probably had, maybe in my career," he said, pleased that his work with Dave Stockton in Tucson last week is paying off. "So it's obviously going in the right direction."
As for his comeback from those early bogeys, he said: “I think it’s just a sign of a little more maturity.”
Graeme McDowell knows he has his work cut out to catch McIlroy after he made seven birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey in an adventurous 67 and still found himself eight behind on three under.
Praying that the wind blows now, McDowell said: “I’ll need some wind to have a chance to catch whoever it is, whether it be the boy wonder or not. He got off to a bad start today and still shot 66. It’s perfect playing conditions for him – soft, ball in hand, suits his great driving, great iron play and the greens are perfect.”
Phil Mickelson shot 71 to miss the projected level-par cut by a shot but Tiger Woods shot 69 and looked certain to make it. Late starter Darren Clarke was certain to miss the cut at 13 over with three to play, while Pádraig Harrington was struggling at two over and sitting on the cut line with four to play.