PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Rory McIlroy is positioning himself to take over the world.
With an easy-looking 3-under-par 67 Friday, McIlroy moved a shot off the lead at the Honda Classic. Tom Gillis and Justin Rose are tied at 8 under, with McIlroy at 7 under. Tiger Woods, who shot a 68 on Friday, is at 1 under.
McIlroy, the 22-year-old wonder boy from Northern Ireland can seize the No. 1 world ranking by winning this event.
He isn’t sure it will happen this weekend, but he’s confident he is ready for it.
The two Rory-fanatics alongside the ropes at the 15th hole Friday can attest to that. Dressed in wild, curly Rory wigs, Brett Cairns, 22, and Andrew Zanatta, 26, of Toronto proudly waved down McIlroy to show off their crazy get-ups.
Stenciled on the front of their shirts were these words: “Kiss me, I’m Rory McIlroy.”
The Rory-fanatics spun around as McIlroy passed so he could see what they stenciled on the back: “Official World Ranking as of 3/5/2012 – 1. Rory. 2. Donald. 3. Westwood.”
McIlroy loved it.
“Shouldn’t be too long, fellas,” Zanatta said. “That’s what he told us.”
McIlroy’s confidence is blossoming, but he isn’t assuming anything, especially here on PGA National’s treacherous Champion Course. McIlroy remembers what happened here on Saturday last year. He was trying to position himself for a Sunday run when he stumbled through the Bear Trap with three double bogeys in a row. He rinsed three shots on that trio of holes.
“This golf course can make average golf look like very bad golf very suddenly,” McIlroy said. “So this course isn’t about making tons of birdies. It’s about keeping the big numbers off your card.”
McIlroy shot 77 here on Saturday a year ago and ended up tying for 70th.
“I got on a little run of pars there for a few holes today and just tried to keep telling myself not to get frustrated, because par on this golf course isn’t that bad a score,” McIlroy said.
With his eight-shot U.S. Open runaway victory last year, impressive in how it came in the major after his final-round Masters collapse, McIlroy has steadily prepared himself for this chance at No. 1. He started this year finishing second at the Abu Dhabi Championship, an event he might have won if not for a careless two-shot penalty in the second round. He tied for fifth in his next start at the Dubai Desert Classic and finished second at last week’s Accenture Match Play Championships.
In McIlroy’s last nine worldwide starts, he has finished T-5 or better eight times with a victory and five second-place finishes in that mix. McIlroy has four worldwide titles in his short career, but skeptics would like to see him finish off more victories before handing him the game’s crown.
McIlroy wants that, too. He believes he is strengthening all aspects of his game.
“I’m working harder than ever, I think, and I haven't really reaped the rewards of it yet,” he said. “I’ve played three tournaments this year and had a couple of chances to win. I feel like it’s very close.”
Maybe as close as this Sunday.