While it may seem a tad premature to announce mission accomplished – they tend to play all 72 in championship golf – and the Ulsterman’s Friday round was something less than highlight quality, there is no mistaking the air that has been blown back into McIlroy’s sails.
If Friday’s 70 was not exactly vintage Rors, it was a moment in time worth noting. On a day when the wind finally arrived at the Emirates Golf Club and McIlroy set out sans his A-game, it was an accomplishment to post something under par and maintain the lead.
“I have to realize that I’m in the middle of this golf tournament, even though it wasn’t quite as good as yesterday,” he said. “Hopefully that was my bad round out of the way and I can shoot a couple of better ones over the weekend.”
It’s equally compelling that McIlroy closed with a birdie at the 18th hole playing from the metaphorical weak side. After Thursday’s masterpiece, McIlroy figured his wedge game was still in need of an upgrade. He even traded in his 3-iron for a fourth wedge (a 52-degree) to help alleviate some of the gaps.
The result on Friday was a dart at the last from just over 100 yards to 2 feet for birdie and a one-stroke advantage over Brooks Koepka.
Making strengths out of weaknesses, that’s what champions do, and McIlroy has faced more than his share of weaknesses over the last 12 months. With each passing event, whether it was a missed cut in the season opener or a first-round loss at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, the questions cascaded in a rush of criticism, some self-inflicted while others were unfairly launched.
The victory at the Australian Open to end last season, maybe more so than his blowout victories at the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship, may turn out to be a seminal moment in McIlroy’s career.
“He’d just won in Australia, you could see the relief on his face,” said Dave Stockton Sr., McIlroy’s putting coach. “It was relief that he got that win off his back. He certainly is in a position where he had a long year answering a lot of questions.”
For McIlroy, his Australian Open victory, which included a Sunday shootout with Adam Scott, was a reason to stop doubting himself and tune out anyone who may still want to.
Midway through his closing nine on Friday, a particularly difficult stretch for the world No. 6, there was a moment when things could have unraveled. A moment that, at least in 2013, could have led to another missed opportunity.
Cruising along at 12 under par, McIlroy’s approach at the par-4 13th hole landed about 15 feet left of the flag. After watching his birdie putt wander by the hole, he gunned his 2-footer for par past again.
It was McIlroy’s first three-putt of the week, but the shoulders stayed square and the head high as he marched to the 14th tee.
“I regrouped after that,” he said. “I hit a couple of loose drives out there which I haven’t really done the past couple of weeks, but still feel like I’m playing well enough to obviously go on.”
In 2013, a miscue like that at the 13th may have led to him going off. He answered with a scrambling par at the 17th hole and that wonderful wedge at the last.
Stockton figured that all the attention paid to McIlroy’s decision to join Nike Golf last year was largely misplaced. It wasn’t the equipment that facilitated his slide from first in the Official World Golf Ranking to sixth, it was a mind that was moving in too many directions.
There were lawsuits with former managers and sponsors to deal with and too much chatter about what he should be doing to fully concentrate on the only thing that matters – winning golf tournaments.
They say the best in any endeavor are forged by adversity and McIlroy has endured more than his share. He’s a 24-year-old who, depending on who you ask, has weathered two slumps in his young career and soared to two major championships.
For many, 2013 would best be a year forgotten. But as McIlroy continues to climb out of the depths of last season it seems he is more interested in clinging to the lessons learned.
“He’s obviously in a really good place,” Stockton said. “Everything around him, he’s in a better place.”
And now he’s back to a familiar place, beating world-class fields with or without his best stuff.