ORLANDO, Fla. — It had been a fairly uninspired start to the season for World No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who missed the cut at the Honda Classic and threw his club into a pond at the WGC-Cadillac at Trump Doral (T9).
But now that he’s in contention at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill after firing a 6-under 66 on a sweltering Friday morning, McIlroy’s name on the leaderboards may as well be written in neon. That was true for Jack, it was true for Tiger, and now it’s true for McIlroy. There is a large pack chasing leader Morgan Hoffmann (65), but McIlroy — five shots off the lead and tied for fourth after the morning wave — is first among equals.
“I’m starting to learn the greens a little bit more,” said McIlroy, who hit only eight of 14 fairways and 12 greens in regulation, but took just 25 putts. “I felt a lot more comfortable on them today than I did yesterday.”
To watch McIlroy and playing partners Jason Day and Rickie Fowler on Friday was to be reminded of a quote that was first uttered of Nicklaus: He knows he’s better than you are, you know he’s better than you are, and he knows that you know he’s better than you are.
Or, if you prefer, listen to 1990 U.S. Open runner-up Mike Donald, who is quoted extensively in my colleague Michael Bamberger’s new book, Men in Green. Toward the end of the book, the blunt Donald starts talking about belief. He sums it up nicely: Good shots lead to confidence; talent leads to good shots; ergo talent leads to confidence. It’s as simple as that.
McIlroy, who at 25 has nine Tour wins, including four majors, boasts more talent, confidence and good shots than anyone currently playing, and watching him reach a gear that only he can access can have a disconcerting effect. You can see it in his peers’ violent swings to try to keep up with him off the tee, their exaggerated frustration as their putts slip past the hole.
Indeed, the best measure of Rory’s five straight birdies from holes 2-6 Friday was not how many feet worth of putts he made (44 feet, 8 inches), but how discombobulated Day and Fowler got while McIlroy was heating up.
Day is ranked fifth in the world. He has spoken of how badly he wants what McIlroy has, not just the top ranking but also the majors. But midway through McIlroy’s heroics Friday, Day looked out of sorts. He lost his drive out of bounds right at the par-5 fourth hole, reloaded, and hooked his next drive left, nailing a female spectator, whose skull redirected his ball into the fairway. (She was knocked down and bloodied, but did not seem concussed, correctly answering the questions of medical personnel on site.)
Even with the helpful redirect of his third shot, Day still made bogey.
Fowler is ranked 11th in the world and friends with McIlroy, but their rivalry, if you’d call it that, has been all McIlroy, who demolished the young American 5 and 4 in their Ryder Cup singles match at Gleneagles last fall.
Still holding steady at one Tour win, Fowler, 25, was also flustered at the fourth hole Friday, losing his second shot right, pitching his third into a bunker behind the green, and needing to convert a sand save for par.
McIlroy, meanwhile, found the left fairway bunker off the tee; hit a fairway wood for his second shot, nearly reaching the green; chipped up to seven feet short of the pin; and made the putt for his third straight birdie.
And so it went: McIlroy in command, Day and Fowler flailing.
This was what McIlroy’s coach, Michael Bannon, must have had in mind when he flew to South Florida for an emergency intervention after watching McIlroy struggle at PGA National and Doral. McIlroy is playing like himself again with just three weeks to go until the Masters, and his would-be competition is going to have to find a way to deal with it.
On Friday, at least, they could not. Their shots strayed, their thoughts wandered. Day 71 (4 under total) and Fowler 71 (2 under) were left behind.
At the fifth hole, Day hit an iron off the tee, but he hit it too far and landed in a fairway bunker. Laying up into trouble is a cardinal sin on Tour; you almost never see it. After Day’s second shot, which found the green, his caddie Col Swatton couldn’t find a rake, walking to fetch the one in a fairway bunker framing the right edge of the hole, but then getting redirected to the bunker whence he came, where a volunteer had finally found a rake.
Swatton looked steamed.
After hitting a fine tee shot into the fifth fairway, Fowler hooked his approach shot with a short iron, missing the green. He bogeyed the hole.
McIlroy? He pelted the fairway with an iron off the tee, striped his second shot to one foot, seven inches from the pin, and tapped in for birdie. He would make one more birdie, from 12 feet at the par-5 sixth hole, before giving a shot back with a bogey at the par-4 eighth. Still, the message was clear: After a sleepy start to 2015, the Tour’s alpha dog is stirring.