NORTON, Mass. – For most the learning curve is gradual, dotted with equal parts trial and error and growing old is often mutually exclusive to growing up.
A select few, however, have a tendency, or maybe it’s tenacity, of blowing through the traditional “slow ahead” signs. Old souls like Rory McIlroy, who two years ago arrived at TPC Boston burned out and all but checked out.
The Northern Irishman, 21 years old at the time, backpedaled with a second-round 76 at the 2010 Deutsche Bank Championship to tie for 37th. He was no better at the third playoff stop in Chicago, this time opening with 76 for another pedestrian T-37 and watched the Tour Championship from his couch, thankfully.
Weeks later the prodigy-turned-international-icon caused a minor stir when he announced Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., could keep his Tour card, leaving the circuit with a hole where one of the game’s brightest stars should have been.
For McIlroy, who leads this year's Deutsche Bank Championship by two strokes after opening with a pair of 65s, the playoff experiment was simply too much golf.
“It's not as if I wanted to be playing golf over in Europe, I just did not want to be playing golf at all,” McIlroy said in December 2010. “The main part of our season is from April until the end of August when we have all the majors and all the big tournaments, and then I mean, for me personally I'd like to have a two- or three-week break after that, and (the FedEx Cup playoffs) doesn't really let you have that.”
Since then McIlroy has won two majors by a combined 16 strokes, scaled to the top of the world golf ranking, rejoined the Tour and grown up like an amoeba on a 24-hour life cycle.
It wasn’t immaturity that sent McIlroy for cover two years ago, it was a lack of perspective and proper planning – just what one would expect from a 21-year-old with loads of disposable income and limitless talent.
The difference with McIlroy is how quickly he learned from 2010, adjusted to the reality of fall golf and returned this year with fresh legs and perspective.
This time around he prepared for the early autumn onslaught, trimmed his early-season dance card and put in a “tournament count” that the Washington Nationals and pitching ace Stephen Strasburg could learn from.
Between January and the Masters he played just five times worldwide, winning once (Honda Classic) and not finishing worse than fifth place. He also limited himself to no more than three consecutive starts, a guideline he followed with just one exception when he added the FedEx St. Jude Classic during the “dog days” of summer when he was struggling.
He is no longer struggling, as evidenced by a commanding performance last month at Kiawah and his 65-65 performance at TPC Boston that makes the ’10 Deutsche Bank seem like another lifetime.
“I’ve paced myself a lot better this year, and that's why I feel like I'm playing good golf at this time of the year,” McIlroy said Thursday. “You want to pace yourself because you've obviously got the FedEx Cup but then the Ryder Cup, as well, which is a very long week, and it takes a lot out of you . . . you want to be 100 percent for that.”
Pacing himself is not the only skill set McIlroy has acquired over his abbreviated career. He’s also learned how to fix on the fly. Last week at the playoff opener at Bethpage only six players putted worse than he did and he limped into a tie for 24th.
After two days touring about New York City with better half Caroline Wozniacki, who had been bounced in Round 1 at the U.S. Open, he arrived at TPC Boston with a fresh outlook on fresh greens.
He needed only 24 putts in Round 1 and followed with a 26-putt Saturday on a day when he parred just half his holes. The other nine was a mixture of six birdies, an eagle and two bogeys for the midway lead.
“Usually when my game goes off there’s not much wrong with it,” he said.
Along the way he also found a fix for a wayward driver, connecting with the short grass on 11 of 14 attempts on Day 2 compared to 4 of 14 fairways during the opening round.
It all adds up to a 12-under-par total and the potential for an as-yet unfulfilled promise of a head-to-head with Tiger Woods, who trails McIlroy by two shots after a second-round 68.
For over a decade, Tiger vs. Phil has always been the undisputed heavyweight bout the golf world craved but, with respect to the often erratic southpaw, the drumbeat for Tiger vs. Rory – on a weekend, when it matters – grows with each round.
The potential power twoball has matured, much like the young man who now stands ready to accept the challenge. It’s not a surprise McIlroy arrived at this high-profile crossroads, only how fast he got there.
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