PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – After carefully extracting his final approach from the pine straw, a high, arcing pitching wedge that his caddie tried to veto and which avoided overhanging tree branches with a purpose, Rory McIlroy turned to the gallery lining the 18th fairway and offered a wry grin.
It wasn’t quite Michael Jordan torching the Portland Trail Blazers back in the day, but it was close. It was the look of a man who got away with an aggressive line of attack, having laid the face of his wedge wide open and having found the green from peril, 122 yards away. It shed light on the confidence that continues to fuel the Ulsterman as he climbs yet another leaderboard, this time on the strength of a 7-under 65 that didn’t appear difficult.
At 12 under, he heads into the weekend at The Players Championship tied for the lead with Tommy Fleetwood, three shots clear of everyone else. McIlroy is in full control of his game, and he’s fully aware of the power and potential that status affords him.
“Just another good day on the course,” McIlroy said. “I did everything pretty much the way I wanted to. Look, I’m really happy with the way everything is.”
The statistics are eye-popping. Playing against the strongest field of the year, McIlroy leads in strokes gained: tee-to-green and ranks second in total strokes gained. He has missed just 6 of 36 greens in regulation and failed to find only two during his second round.
There’s a different sound to McIlroy’s iron shots these days, even compared to those offered by marquee playing partners Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar. It’s as if his approach shots are afforded a 20-yard head start simply by leaving the ground. Never was that more evident than at the par-5 16th, when he lofted an effortless 4-iron from 224 yards, setting up an eagle that brought the afternoon crowd to its feet.
“The wind was helping it a little bit from right to left, so I didn’t really have to worry about the trouble on the right,” said McIlroy, evading a treacherous hazard with ease. “It was just a perfect yardage to go ahead and be aggressive with it.”
During those brief, fleeting instances when the game is all clicking, each of the top players in the world assumes a different temperament. Dustin Johnson saunters, unbothered by anything in view. Jordan Spieth picks up his pace and dialogue in equal measure. Jason Day tries to channel his inner Tiger Woods.
But McIlroy? He struts. There’s an extra spring in his step, and it can seem like he’s basking in the moment at every turn. A cyclical nature begins to develop: good play begets a more confident stride, and like a peacock flashing his feathers, he picks up a little more swagger with every step.
Such was the case Friday at TPC Sawgrass, as the light began to fade and as McIlroy started to heat up. That eagle on No. 16 was followed by a birdie on the infamous 17th, and after escaping with par on the finishing hole, he closed out 36 holes that included a single blemish.
Of course, when it comes to McIlroy, a good week’s work can be undone in a single Sunday. We’ve been down this road with regularity this year, as he has routinely positioned himself near the lead through the first three rounds only to come up short of a victory, either by his own hand or because of the outstanding play of another.
Proceedings held exactly to script last week at Bay Hill, where he appeared on the verge of a successful title defense only to get stuck in neutral during the final round. And while there’s still half the tournament to play, he’s sticking to a similar mantra in a different Florida neighborhood: good play will take care of everything else.
“I just need to keep seeing red numbers. That’s all I need to keep seeing,” McIlroy said. “I don’t need a win. I’m not putting myself under pressure. Again, winning is a byproduct of doing all the things that I’m doing well.”
The story of McIlroy has been written in two parts this year: everything that happens on Sunday, and everything that happened before it. He has yet to get both acts on the same page.
Whether this is the place and week that those two converge, whether he ends a year-long victory drought in emphatic fashion and turns his run of T-3s and T-6s into a trophy, remains to be seen. But he’s given himself a chance.
And if he hits every shot with the innate precision and swashbuckling abandon he showcased during his close Friday evening, there’s every reason to think the dam is about to break.
“If you look at my driving stats, how I’m hitting my irons, all that adds up to hopefully shooting the best score or the lowest score of the week,” he said. “So that’s how I need to approach it.”