Rory McIlroy recovered from Friday’s sloppy start with six birdies in a 10-hole stretch for a four-under 66 to build a three-shot lead among early starters at the Honda Classic.
A growing gallery in warm sunshine at the PGA National Golf Club saw a familiar game — the McIlroy who won the Honda Classic two years ago to reach No. 1 in the world for the first time, not the guy who walked off the course last year at the height of his frustrations.
Swinging freely and putting beautifully, McIlroy hit his stride on his back nine with four birdies in five holes, including the par-four No. 3 when he smashed a drive about 32m behind Adam Scott and had only a 6-iron into the green on the 537.9m hole.
At an 11-under 129, he was three shots clear of Russell Henley, who had a 69. Lee Westwood (65) and Russell Knox (63) were four shots behind.
Phil Mickelson, playing a PGA National for the first time since he was an amateur, had a short week. He made just four birdies over two rounds, went bunker-to-bunker around the 16th green for double-bogey and had a 71. Mickelson was virtually certain to miss the cut.
Tiger Woods was among the late starters. He began his round at one-over, outside the cut line and 12 shots behind McIlroy.
“This year is obviously a lot different,” McIlroy said. “Got off to a good start. I’m confident. I’m playing well. This is the second straight tournament I’ve opened with a 63, so if I can keep building on these good starts, then hopefully I can start converting.”
After a 63 in Dubai, he said he was pressing too much in the final round and wound up in a tie for ninth.
Friday was another step in the right direction, despite two errant tee shots on the 11th and 12th holes that led to bogeys. His round changed with a tee shot into six feet on the 16th hole for a birdie, and then a 12-foot birdie on the 18th to wrap up his front nine and earn back the two shots he had dropped.
“Watching Rory play is amazing when he’s swinging like this,” Adam Scott said.