Rory McIlroy followed up Thursday’s 7-under 63 at the Honda Classic at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, with a solid 66. That gave him a 1-shot lead over Zimbabwe’s (by way of Virgina Tech and Charlotte, North Carolina), Brendon de Jonge, who had a grand day at the office shooting a 6-under 64. And it could have been better; he had two bogeys in an otherwise stellar day.
The first thoughts McIlroy had in his media session that had to do with the mastery process was his discussion of when and how he finally found his new driver and ball combination:
I guess last fall is when I started to use the new driver and the ball combo. So probably need to go back to I guess the summer last year when it didn’t feel — it was getting there, but it still wasn’t where I wanted it to be. But yeah, [now] I can play different shots. I hit a really nice little low drive down the second and then got on the third when it was downwind, launched it up in the air.
So, I mean, the playability is just there. I feel confident that I can hit different shots with it, which is key for me.
In Thursday’s media session, he mentioned that he had worked with putting guru, Dave Stockton. That paid off pretty well with the lowest 36-hole putt total in his career. Keep in mind that par would be 72 putts:
I mentioned I did a little bit of work with Dave Stockton last week which has definitely helped. I had not seen him since Tiger’s tournament in December. So it was nice to catch up with him, and we tweaked a couple of things. All of a sudden yesterday it started to feel very, very comfortable.
Green speeds here, you can be aggressive with them. I don’t feel like the putts really can get away from you that much. So you can really get the ball rolling at the hole.
So, yeah, I mean, I’m confident and that’s probably — 49 putts — that’s the lowest putting totals after 36 I’ve probably had, maybe in my career. So it’s obviously going in the right direction.
You can begin to see the maturity in a player, not so much when things go right, but when they go wrong. McIlroy had an effortless cruise of 7 birdies in the first round, but the second didn’t start as well; he made back-to-back bogeys on his second and third holes. When something like that happens, your first thought can be something like, “I had it yesterday, but I guess I lost it.” And you resign yourself to fighting it all day. McIlroy has moved beyond that:
I think it’s just a sign of a little more maturity, as well, not really trying to force the issue or press, because I’ve made a couple of bogeys early. Just stay patient and realize, you know, 72‑hole golf tournaments, it’s inevitable that you’re going to make some bogeys in there, get yourself out of position.
And I knew I had — not like I was thinking ahead so much, but I knew I had some opportunities coming up. I had the two par 5s which were reachable, a couple of short par 4s.
So I knew that with the way I’m playing and the confidence in my ability, I would be able to get those shots back. I didn’t panic. I didn’t try to do anything different. Just tried to keep playing the way I was.
In the final round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in late January, McIlroy shot a 74 when the hot rounds were in the low to mid 60s. Players learn as much from their failures as their successes and he has already processed Dubai:
I tried too hard, which was a start — not even just the last day, but the weekend, because I had started too well in the tournament , I felt like I should have been further ahead and I tried a little bit too hard.
My course management on Sunday was probably not as good as it could have been. I should have taken a few more 3‑woods off tees. I was just making tee shots more difficult for myself than I needed to. You know, 3‑wood into the fat part of the fairway would have left maybe a wedge or a 9‑iron.
There’s a couple things I took away from that. You know, you always try to learn week‑by‑week and try to incorporate what you’ve learned the week before into the next week.
After a down year last year, he’s managed to return to his former form. From that level of improvement, his goal is more consistency because of the emotional toll all these ups and downs create:
I think one of the goals for me this year was consistency. You know, not making the bad round into a 71 or 72 but obviously still having the good ones.
It’s quite emotionally draining when you have all these highs and lows and it’s nice to be able to keep it more on an even keel. But yeah, consistency in my golf game and my golf swing will give me that more of the “flat line.”
But yeah, that just comes from confidence and working on my swing and making swings that I feel comfortable with and seeing the shots that I want to see.
To get a sense of the gestation period of a comeback, he thinks it began in the Fall of last year when he was over in Asia:
Yeah, it was somewhere during the Asian stretch last year. I played two tournaments in Shanghai, I played an exhibition with Tiger, and then I played in Dubai. And it was somewhere, I can’t really tell you what exact moment it was, but it was somewhere in those few weeks where I started to really get the feel for what I needed to do.
And I’ve continued it on and I had a great off‑season and I hit the ball well and I practiced hard and I’ve continued it on into this year.
So that puts Brendon de Jonge in the last group with McIlroy and he’s not intimidated by that at all:
I feel very comfortable. I’ve been out here long enough now. I’ve played quite a bit with Rory. I know obviously what a great player he is. No, I feel very comfortable. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
He probably also feels very comfortable because he had a putting lesson with Nick Price and he seems to have captured lightning in a bottle. Price is a hero of his and he has stayed at his house for this tournament for six or seven years now.
Russell Henley is two shots behind de Joeng and will be paired with Lee Westwood who is another shot behind him. Henley seems to be quite confident in the state of his game:
I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. I haven’t been in contention obviously as much as I would like in the last however many months, but this is where I want to be and this is why I practice and I’m just going to try and enjoy it.
Westwood is having a bit of a renaissance himself shooting 68, 65, a nice trend:
I haven’t been hitting the ball well. I haven’t done for probably over a year and a half, but it definitely feels like it’s coming back; with the movements I’m working on, definitely getting more penetrating flight on it and my distance control like I said has come back. I feel confident being able to hit at one side of the green and shape it in. I’m starting to get that fade back that I always used to hit.
It’s just me getting it in better positions again and gradually building up the confidence with it. I started in L.A. and I started to hit it better and then the Match Play is just one of them weeks, didn’t really have a chance to see what it was like. I played great, but lost to a 6‑under [by Harris English] and going home. But you can’t let that get you down and then this week I just tried to carry on where I left off in L.A. really.
Tiger Woods made the cut on the number shooting 71, 69:
Well, I would like to obviously hit it better than I have been, and especially today. I didn’t hit it very good today. But I fought out a number, which is always a good thing. Somehow would like to put together a good weekend. We’re all bunched in there. Anything can happen this weekend.
But he doesn’t seem to be particularly worried about his year:
It’s only three events, so not that many rounds into it. Yeah, there’s a lot of positives in there. Certainly a lot of positives. Mainly I just feel hungry. Yeah, absolutely, short game was spotty and now it’s good again, so now just need my ball-striking to come around. I putted good today. I made a lot of putts which was nice. The putts that I hit, they had the right speed on them, so I wasn’t — I had a good feel for them today, which yesterday I was off.
Phil Mickelson had a tough two days for him and missed the cut by one, shooting 70, 71:
You know, I gave it a try. I had a hard time making birdies today. I don’t know what it was. When I hit a reasonable shot, I missed the putt, and I don’t know, I just had a hard time making birdies.
I drove the ball well. I mean, I hit 75 percent of my fairways. That’s a good thing for me. I’m starting to drive the ball well. What I normally do well on my iron play was distance control was off, it just wasn’t sharp, and I didn’t putt as well as I had expected. I made — I didn’t putt bad but I didn’t putt great.
It seems like all to often, Tiger and Phil come off an extended break and don’t quite seem to have it. We’ll see if Tiger can move up the leaderboard with his trademark storming of the castle on the weekend. And find out, “What will Phil do?” in his next tournament.