ATLANTA – The storm that sent officials at the Tour Championship scrambling on Friday never materialized, but another tempest emerged for the other two dozen or so players looking to close out the season with a victory.
After opening with what he figured was a pedestrian 69 on Thursday at East Lake, Rory McIlroy did what Rory McIlroy does on Day 2 – rolling in four birdie putts from inside 11 feet, overpowering a soft golf course with towering drives and even making par from a spectator’s pocket on his way to one of the easiest 65s this side of the Humana Challenge.
When the round was completed well before happy hour on the East Coast, the world No. 1 had jumped nine spots up on a crowded leaderboard and into a tie for second place, just two strokes behind the prince of these playoffs, Billy Horschel.
Perhaps it doesn’t hold the cachet of the claret jug or the historical significance of a Masters green jacket, which would complete the career Grand Slam for the 25-year-old, but the FedEx Cup playoffs have a compelling hold on McIlroy.
Two years ago the Northern Irishman began the Tour Championship atop the points list after a dominant run that included victories at two of the first three post-season stops only to watch the $10 million payday go to Brandt Snedeker in what can only be considered the game’s most expensive pencil whipping.
McIlroy has no problem with the often-skewed math that determines the yearlong champion, but he does have a score to settle.
“It would be the icing on the cake, really,” McIlroy said. “Before coming into these FedEx Cup playoffs, having won four times in a season, two majors, a World Golf Championship, the flagship event on the European Tour, it was going to be a great season anyway, I wanted to cap it off in style and I've given myself a chance to do that over the next two days.”
Although the math becomes a little complicated depending on the scenarios, the only outcome McIlroy is interested in is winning because at fourth on the playoff point list that would assure him the FedEx Cup regardless of what Horschel & Co. pull off.
And on Friday he moved to within 36 holes of the only prize in golf other than that green jacket that has eluded him with a dominant performance that is becoming far too familiar for some of his Tour frat brothers.
Although comparisons to Tiger Woods remain unrealistic, McIlroy’s name on a weekend leaderboard is starting to draw players’ attention the way the guy in the red shirt used to.
“Rory is a good front-runner and he is tough to catch when he is up. I look forward to the challenge,” said Rickie Fowler, who went head-to-head with McIlroy on Sunday at Royal Liverpool. “This summer he’s made his presence known a bit more.”
After turning in 2 under on Friday, three hours earlier than originally scheduled because officials moved up tee times in hopes of avoiding an approaching storm that never arrived, McIlroy pulled to within two shots of the lead with his two longest birdie putts of the day at Nos. 17 and 18.
Although he remains two shots off the lead, McIlroy has, as he has done all season, maintained a machine-like consistency according to every statistical matrix. He’s fourth this week in driving distance, first in approach shot distance to the pin, third in strokes gained-putting and first in distance of putts made.
It was the driver, however, that set up all those short approach shots and continues to separate him from the rest of the pack.
“I’m not quite as good as I was about a month ago, but I'm still driving the ball well,” McIlroy said. “I wouldn't say I'm driving it as good as I was driving it (at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational) and PGA (he won both). But I'm still driving it good enough to give myself a chance to win this tournament.”
Even when he wasn’t perfect, like at the par-4 14th hole when his drive clipped a tree limb and ended up in a spectator’s pocket, he still managed to sidestep trouble and make par.
But then he’s used to the occasional wayward tee ball.
“I hit it off someone's leg at the Scottish Open this year,” smiled McIlroy. “I need to stop hitting it off line. Bad things happen.”
The way he is playing the 28 other players in this week’s field may be hoping for a few more adventures, say a few foul balls in the direction of Buckhead, to even the playing field because they’ve all seen these storm clouds before.