Rory McIlroy discovered what a difference a day makes with a three-under opening nine holes at Royal Birkdale which was eight shots better than his first round effort.
The Irishman, the 2014 Open champion, was five over through six holes on Thursday and seemingly destined to crash out before a back-nine rally.
He maintained the momentum on Friday with three birdies and no dropped shots as he covered the front nine in 31 — the best of all the morning starters.
That put him within three shots of the lead held by Matt Kuchar, a seemingly unthinkable prospect at the same point on Thursday.
The American briefly improved his overnight score to six under but fell back into a tie with compatriots Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka, both mid-afternoon starters in the forecasted worst of the windier weather.
The 28-year-old McIlroy admitted the birdie putt he holed on the 18th late on Thursday to get him back to one-over gave him a much-needed boost and so it proved as he hammered a wind-assisted three-wood 372 yards down the first fairway and chipped to six feet to get back to level par.
Frustratingly he left a 15ft birdie attempt short at the next hole but already looked in far better shape than he had on Thursday afternoon when he was five over through six holes and seemingly destined to crash out before his back-nine rally.
McIlroy’s precision off the tee and approach play was much more controlled than his previous round and when he hit it to 10 feet at the third for his fifth birdie in his last seven holes he was under par for the first time in the tournament.
The four-time major winner’s brilliant approach to within four feet at the sixth, the hardest hole on the course, got his name on the leaderboard and into a share of ninth at two under having closed the previous day tied for 58th place.
Kuchar’s chip-in birdie at the third and a long putt at the next made up for dropping a shot at the second and took him clear at the top before, after scrambling a par from heavy rough by the side of the sixth green, he bogeyed the next.
Another American Bubba Watson improved his his overnight two under with birdies at the second and sixth to move into fourth.