PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy unsheathed his 3-wood, stepped behind the ball and contemplated how he was going to dissect his final hole of the day.
Like always, he stepped up to bat with a club twirl, danced in place until comfortable, gave three quick peeks at his target some 300 yards away, and uncorked the deceptively powerful swing that is the envy of teaching professionals everywhere. The ball had barely begun its ascent by the time he bent down to snatch the tee.
Over and over he pounded his tee ball Friday at PGA National’s Champion Course. He blasted it over bunkers. He cut off corners of doglegs. He blew it past his fellow playing competitors, including world No. 2 Adam Scott.
Finding the fairway makes the game easier for everyone, from major champions to weekend duffers. But for McIlroy, it’s different. He doesn’t need to lead the Tour in driving accuracy or center-cut every fairway. More important is how he feels over a tee shot, a confidence that then trickles down into every aspect of his game.
Afterward, he confirmed what everyone at the Honda Classic already knew:
“I’m confident,” he said. “I’m playing well.”
After a rocky start to his second round, McIlroy made six birdies in his last 12 holes for a 4-under 66 and the halfway lead at the Honda. At 11-under 129, he is already just one shot off his winning total from 2012, when he held off Tiger Woods and reached world No. 1 for the first time.
That was the first victory in a five-win campaign that cemented his status as the heir apparent to Woods and led to a mega-millions deal with Nike. That guy is looking more and more familiar.
“A coach can tell you the perfect way to swing a golf club,” McIlroy said, “but once that little light bulb in your head comes on where you start to get it as well, you can start to own your own swing.”
That light bulb began to flicker on during the Asian swing last fall, when he gushed about finally finding the right driver-and-ball combination with Nike. Since then, he has finished in the top 11 in seven of his last eight stroke-play events, including a drought-busting victory at the Australian Open in December.
Confidence can be fleeting, even for the world’s best. Last year McIlroy could summon a few spectacular shots, even a dazzling round or two, but the peaks and valleys in his results damaged his belief. Now, he says, “I’m happy with where my swing is, and even if I do hit a loose shot, I can get over it much quicker and much easier because I have the confidence in what I’m doing.”
It’s why he didn’t get flustered early in his second round, when he made two bogeys in his first three holes. Watching McIlroy there was a here-we-go again quality to his start – after all, he has begun three of his last five stroke-play events with 65 or better, then failed to finish inside the top 5. But on Friday he regained control with birdies on 16 and 18, then roared ahead with birdies on 3, 4, 5 and 7, the latter two after holing 25-footers. No panic.
A day earlier, he was talking swing changes with Billy Horschel, with whom he hadn’t played since a practice round at last year’s U.S. Open. As they walked down the 15th hole, McIlroy demonstrated the various changes in his action – how last year, he had to reroute his downswing because he started it too far outside, and how, to compensate, he then tucked it too far inside and got across the line. He owns that swing now, to the point that he can express where it is now and eight months ago.
“He’s swinging better,” Horschel said. “I’m not a swing guru or anything like that, but I know when someone is swinging well what it looks like. He just didn’t look like he was swinging well last year.”
And he seems to have figured it out now, yes?
“(Expletive), you guys saw enough of it the last two days,” Horschel said, laughing. “The guy is swinging very free. He hit a lot of good shots, made a lot of good putts, looked comfortable and confident out there over the ball. … He’s always been a pretty good putter and he’s just confident now with his swing. Now, all he’s focusing on is playing golf.”
Indeed, McIlroy said this is the most dialed in he has felt since the 2012 FedEx Cup playoffs, when he won two events on his way to earning Player of the Year honors. “That’s when it was automatic,” he said.
Both then and now, his performance is predicated on how well he hits the tee ball.
Consider this: McIlroy had 15 top-5 finishes worldwide in 2012. Only twice in those events did he finish outside the top five in driving distance.
He leads here at the halfway point. No surprise, he is currently ranked third in driving.
It helps, too, that at last week’s Match Play he had a productive session with putting coach Dave Stockton, whom he hadn’t seen since Woods’ event in December. Occasionally his right hand drifts too far underneath the putter grip. With a slight change, his putter now chases down the line and stays lower to the ground. Through two rounds here, he has needed only 49 putts and leads the strokes gained-putting category.
“It’s obviously going in the right direction,” he said.
So is the rest of his game. Master Rory believes again.