Rory McIlroy, 12 months removed from the lowest point in his career when he quit the Honda Classic midway through his second round, grabbed control of the tournament with a blistering 4-under 31 on his second nine that rocketed him to a four-shot lead over a surging Lee Westwood with the afternoon wave yet to play.
One year after blaming dental and mental issues for his premature exit from PGA National, the former world No. 1 clearly had his head back in the game and his game back on course after adding to his 18-hole lead with a 4-under 66 to go with Thursday's flawless 63. With Tiger Woods (1-over) and the rest of the afternoon wave yet to take the field, McIlroy made his way into the clubhouse at 11-under for the week.
McIlroy was the best of the best on Thursday, topping the talent-rich cast of characters that included Woods, Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson, and three other top-10 players in the world. After a scuffling front nine, the former No. 1, who struggled mightily to a winless 2013 season, clobbered PGA National to make a convincing argument that he was back to his two-time major championship-winning form.
Woods’ Nike stablemate got off to a sluggish start in Friday’s second round but he stepped on the gas on his inward nine. Superb shot-making and a sizzling putter earned him six birdies, including three straight on Nos. 3, 4, and 5, to leave the rest of those on the stacked leaderboard looking up (via PGATour.com):
It appeared for a while that, as guys like Westwood (5-under through 16), Russell Knox (6-under after 14), and Daniel Summerhays (5-under for the day) grabbed their share of birdies, McIlroy might tread water, or worse. Starting on the back nine, he entered the day with a one-shot edge over Russell Henley and promptly, with bogeys on the 11th and 12th, handed the advantage to last year’s Sony Open winner (via PGATour.com):
McIlroy battled back to a share of the lead with a birdie at No. 16 after knocking his approach to five feet and making the putt. He regained the edge on 18.
Nice up and down by Rory from back of green on 18. Birdie gets him back to even for the day.— Brian Wacker (@pgatour_brianw) February 28, 2014
While McIlroy was putting on a show, playing partner Adam Scott got his ball rolling in the right direction after the turn as well. Scuffling to get in ahead of the projected cut line of even-par, the reigning Masters champ made a hash of things to start only his second PGA Tour round following a six-week layoff.
Scott carded back-to-back double-bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 after rinsing balls on both holes to go to 4-over for the day and 2-over for the week, only to rebound with his own birdie hat trick to kick off his second nine. He launched his comeback effort by sandwiching a couple of ho-hum birdie putts -- five-and-a-half feet on No. 1 and four feet on No. 3 -- around a 60-foot bomb on the second.
Scott drained a 16-footer for another birdie on the fifth and made one on the last to get to 3-under for the week.
Another high-profile name other than Woods was staring at a missed cut in what he termed the official start to his 2014 season. Phil Mickelson, playing his first tourney since posting a T19 at Pebble more than two weeks ago, added a double of his own at the treacherous 16th, which, combined with a bogey and two birdies put him at 1-over through 36.