This year started with Jordan Spieth running away with a dominant win in Hawaii, and on Sunday Rory McIlroy will be perfectly set up to join the party and turn the pre-Masters hype all the way up.
McIlroy ended 2015 feeling disappointed and like he'd lost the year. This is all relative, of course, because he still won four times worldwide. That's a career year for most pros, but for Rory, he didn't win a major and didn't even get to defend his Open at all and his PGA Championship at 100 percent. While he recovered from an ankle injury, he lost what seemed like an unassailable world No. 1 ranking at the start of the year. Spieth posted a legendary season and Jason Day also grabbed that top ranking with five wins of his own. It left Rory a little unsatisfied and everyone else greatly anticipating how he'd respond in 2016.
This is Rory's third-straight start on the stateside PGA Tour and the results have been mixed. He hasn't come out of the gate and blitzed the field like we thought, but he was there on Sunday at Riviera before missing the cut last week at the Honda Classic. Now he'll go to the final 18 at the season's biggest event so far with a three-shot cushion over a loaded field.
McIlroy started the day in a two-shot hole to Adam Scott, last week's winner and maybe the hottest player in the world right now. By the 6th tee, that deficit had flipped to a one-shot lead. No one chases better than Rory, especially when he's in that final group and bombing away right in front of the guy he's trying to pass. There's no one in golf that's more fun to watch when he's on than Rory and almost all of it was working on Saturday at Doral.
This is the sexiest tee-to-green game out there, and this bit of ball-striking at the 5th yielded a birdie that put him on a lead that he'll likely not relinquish all weekend.
He made only one birdie on the second nine, but that was more than enough at a Blue Monster course that wasn't giving away much to this world-class field. The red number came at the 10th, where he poured in a 16-footer.
The biggest question around McIlroy's game is his putter, and that scrutiny intensified this week when he announced he was switching his stroke to a cross-handed left-hand-low grip.
The most talented player in the world is messing around with his putting stroke just a month before the Masters? It wasn't pretty in the first round, but he's showed no weaknesses on the greens in the last two rounds, and he didn't make a single bogey Saturday. His 68 was just one of six rounds that broke 70.
At the end of last year, Rory said about the upcoming season that if he "got off to a good start, there's no reason why I can't be the No. 1 player in the world going into Augusta." He can't get it all back this week with a win, but he would jump Day and move to No. 2. Up 3 with one round to go, there's no reason to think Rory won't close it out and fire his first major shot of the 2016 season announcing that he's back.