PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Rory McIlroy didn't have his best stuff in the second round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass on Friday. At the par-4 16th hole, he lost his drive right, hit his lay-up second shot too far left and barely missed the tree hanging over the left side of the fairway with his approach.
He had to chip with one foot on a railroad tie on the par-3 17th. His tee shot on the par-4 18th hugged the left side and stopped a few inches from the water.
And yet McIlroy made pars on all three holes, signed for an even-par 72 and is among a large scrum at six under, five shots behind Sergio Garcia (68-65). Not that there was ever a doubt, but this marks the first time in four tries that McIlroy has made the cut here, which he pronounced himself delighted about.
"Overall I felt like I played O.K.," said McIlroy, whose round took a hit with bogeys on the 7th, 8th and 9th holes. "I didn't play as well as I did [Thursday] and didn't really hole anything on the greens. I mean I'm still in there and just need to get off to a good start tomorrow and get myself back in it."
The statistics say McIlroy hit eight of 14 fairways on Friday, a day after he found nine. He hit 12 of 18 greens in regulation, a day after hitting 15. So he was a bit off. But four months into what has been a lackluster season, his bad to mediocre golf is getting better. He looks more comfortable with his game and is back to dazzling fans with the occasional had-to-see-it-to-believe-it shot.
The third shot on 16 will never show up on the highlight reel of McIlroy's career, and to appreciate it you had to be there. With its menacing overhang of branches, the huge oak that guards the left side of the fairway seemed to block him out. Would Rory go over? Would he go under? Without much deliberation, he played a sand wedge that barely cleared the tree. The ball landed maybe 15 feet behind the pin, grabbed the green and spun hard, nearly going in for a crazy eagle 3. (He then missed the eight-foot, birdie putt.)
"I didn't have a great lie after my tee shot [on 16], so I was just trying to get it up there somewhere [with my second]," McIlroy said. "I didn't really have much control over it, and it flew a little bit on me. It went a little closer to the tree than I wanted it to, but I was still able to get it up and over, which was nice."
You could say that.
It was also a masterful shot that in lesser hands could easily have turned into a disaster, what with so much water right and behind the green and the fact that McIlroy admitted he had to hook his ball against a slight left-to-right wind. And he did all this, keep in mind, with a sand wedge.
"I think he looks pretty sharp," said Masters champion Adam Scott (68, seven under), who played with McIlroy and Steve Stricker (71, six under) in the first two rounds. "[Thursday] I was only impressed. I thought he looked very, very sharp [Thursday], really liked the control he had on everything. More than anything I think Rory's short game in the last two years has just matured beyond his years somehow."
The headlines through 36 holes here will focus mostly on Tiger Woods, who has already won three times this year and trails Garcia by a shot after a pair of 67s. But the McIlroy of 2013 is getting closer and closer to the McIlroy of 2012, and don't think Scott and the rest of them don't know it.