PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Call off the search party.
Bring home the bloodhounds.
Even with all the stars packed into the Honda Classic, none could be found on the leaderboard Thursday, not until Rory McIlroy bolted up it in a back-nine blitz late in the afternoon.
With a 7-under 63, McIlroy moved himself into early position to win this event for the second time in three years. He ended the day a shot ahead of Russell Henley and two ahead of Rory Sabbatini, William McGirt and Jamie Donaldson.
“I felt like I was in control of my ball all day,” a beaming McIlroy said after signing his scorecard. “I hit a lot of fairways, hit a lot of greens and actually made quite a few putts. It's a golf course where you can't really fake it around. You have to play well to shoot good scores, and I was able to do that today.”
McIlroy, 24, can’t seem to step foot on the Champion Course without creating high drama.
Two years ago, he held off a hard charging Tiger Woods in the final round to win, the victory boosting him to No. 1 for the first time in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Last year, amid struggles adjusting to new Nike equipment and all the expectations that accompanied the multi-million dollar deal, he walked off the course in the middle of the second round. He cited a toothache before later admitting the real pain was wounded pride over his inflated score.
Through the equipment switch, through management and contract disputes that led to lawsuits, through rumors about impending breakups with his high-profile, tennis star girlfriend, McIlroy’s game swooned last year. His swing was a mess, his mojo was gone, but he sent another message Thursday at PGA National that his game’s coming back strong.
“I couldn’t be in a better place,” McIlroy said.
He wasn’t just talking about the positions of his swing. He was talking about his marriage plans with Caroline Wozniacki, his new home in Palm Beach Gardens, the new management team around him.
“I couldn't be happier,” McIlroy said. “We've got a home here. Personal life is great. Looking forward to getting married at some point in the future, and I feel like if everything's settled off the course, then it helps me perform better on it.”
McIlroy is beginning to perform again like the young phenom who generated so much excitement winning a pair of major championships in runaways and being named PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2012.
Reigning Masters champ Adam Scott is seeing McIlroy’s re-emergence more closely than he would like.
Back in December, McIlroy denied Scott the Australian Triple Crown, coming from four shots behind Scott in the final round of the Australian Open to beat him with a birdie at the last. Scott was paired with McIlroy again at PGA National, the first time they played together since the Australian Open.
“He’s looking pretty sharp if you ask me,” Scott said. “He just didn’t make an error when I needed him to [in Australia]. He just wore me out there. Today, he was very good as well.”
McIlroy birdied the 10th, 11th and 12th holes to get onto the leaderboard at PGA National. He seized the outright lead closing with birdies at the 17th and 18th holes.
“I've reached a point now where I'm very comfortable with everything in my game and my swing,” McIlroy said. “I feel like the scores are just a byproduct of all the hard work.”
McIlroy said earlier this week that he should never have walked off PGA National last year, even though he felt like he just couldn’t cope with everything going on in his life. He said it would never happen again.
On Thursday, McIlroy said there is no attempt to redeem himself this week.
“It’s not like I was out there thinking about what had happened last year, or what had happened the year before that, when I won,” McIlroy said. “It's a new tournament. It's on a tough golf course, and I need to focus all my energy and thoughts into playing these 18 holes. You can't really let any other thoughts creep into your mind, because it is such a tough golf course.”
For better or worse, it’s a course McIlroy can’t help creating high drama upon.