HOYLAKE, England — Rory McIlroy has a couple of trigger words this week, two words to get his mind right as he settles into a shot. He isn’t saying what those words are — not until Sunday, if all goes well. For now, suffice it to say he is in the zone, or the flow, the happy golfing place in which he is doing to Royal Liverpool what he did to Congressional in 2011 (U.S. Open, eight-shot victory) and Kiawah in 2012 (PGA Championship, another eight-shot win). McIlroy is proving, again, that when he is on, he is a far superior product to anything else currently on the market.
Breaking out of a beguiling string of Friday flops, McIlroy weathered a bogey at the opening hole to shoot a second-straight 66 Friday for a four-stroke lead over Dustin Johnson (65) halfway through the 143rd British Open. McIlroy made seven birdies, including three in the last four holes.
“I’m very comfortable in this position,” McIlroy said. “I’m very comfortable doing what I’m doing right now. It’s hard to describe. I wish I could get into [this kind of performance zone] more often.”
Six players were tied for third place at 6 under, six back. Those included Rickie Fowler (69), Sergio Garcia (70), Francesco Molinari (70), Ryan Moore (68), Louis Oosthuizen (68) and Charl Schwartzel (67).
U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson, 64, shot 73 for the second-straight day to become the oldest player to make the cut at the British Open. Phil Mickelson also made the cut, shooting a second-round 70 to get to even.
Playing in just his fourth competitive round since undergoing major back surgery in late March, Tiger Woods fought his driver and shot 77 to fall to 2 over, also making the cut — on the number. Woods, who was 6 over par on holes where he hit driver, birdied the par-5 18th hole to avoid getting the weekend off in two consecutive stars for the first time in his career.
“I was trying to be a bit more aggressive,” Woods said. “With the wind the way it was, I could take some of the bunkers out of play and get it down where I had sand wedge into the green.”
The problem was Woods was so erratic that any extra distance he was able to gain was more of a liability than an asset. The low point came at the 17th hole, where he lost his tee shot out of bounds right and made an ugly triple-bogey 7, thus necessitating a clutch seven-foot birdie putt at the last.
McIlroy, by comparison, blistered a 396-yard drive down the 17th fairway, leaving himself only a pitch for his second shot. He made a birdie 3. He had total command of his driver, the club that he says dictates, more than any other, how he feels about his game. Dustin Johnson also used the driver well. He bettered McIlroy’s titanic drive on 17 and also made birdie, then birdied 18 for 65, the low round of the tournament, getting to 8 under.
The forecast calls for thunderstorms Saturday morning, and for the first time in the tournament’s history, players will be sent off on both the first and 10th tees, starting at 9 a.m. local time, to try to beat the weather.
Conditions for Friday’s second round were warm and muggy, and at least one male fan peeled off his shirt and was parading around the grounds as if he were at the adjacent Hoylake Beach. Ice cream was a big seller. So was beer. McIlroy, wearing a fluorescent yellow cap that made the back of his head look like a giant tennis ball, seemed to channel all that heat into his game. He broke out of his second-round slump that journalists had begun to call “Freaky Friday,” a mysterious and pernicious streak in which McIlroy’s bipolar play had included wild Thursday-Friday swings of 63-78 (Memorial) and 64-78 (last week’s Aberdeen Scottish Open).
“I didn’t have that in my head at all,” McIlroy said. “Going out there, I just wanted to play another solid round of golf, stick to my game plan, stick to doing what I do well, which is take advantage of the par 5s, maybe take advantage of some of the other holes that are downwind.”
Two years ago that McIlroy looked as if he might not only surpass Woods’s 14 majors but also Jack Nicklaus’s hallowed career total of 18. McIlroy was the golden child, the heir to the throne. He’d romped at the U.S. Open the year before, and all he did in 2012 was win the Honda Classic, the PGA Championship, and back-to-back FedEx Cup playoff events: the Deutsche Bank and the BMW Championship. He won the PGA Tour money title, and the European tour’s Race to Dubai.
What followed was a total reorganization of his life, including a move to South Florida, an equipment overhaul, a management shakeup replete with lawsuit and countersuit, and a whirlwind romance with tennis pro Caroline Wozniacki that was headed toward marriage until it wasn’t.
When all of that turmoil took a toll on his golf — missed cuts, a phantom toothache and WD at the 2013 Honda Classic — it felt like not only McIlroy’s loss but the game’s, as well. Now, though, it’s as if everything and nothing has changed. He looks at ease. Confident. Ready to win.
“I’ve always said, whenever you play this well, you always wonder how you’ve played so badly before,” McIlroy said. “And whenever you play badly, you always wonder how you ever played so well.”
“It’s great to see him doing what he’s doing,” said Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke, speaking for many. “He’ll be a tough guy to catch.”