Rory McIlroy off to strong start at Honda Classic
Rory McIlroy isn’t interested in recent history at the Honda Classic — good or bad.
Two years ago, McIlroy posted four rounds in the 60s at PGA National for a two-shot victory that moved him to No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career. It was a sign of big things to come, for Boy Wonder went on to win the PGA Championship, five times around the world and the money title on the PGA Tour and European Tour.
And then there was last year.
The newest star in the Nike galaxy, McIlroy showed up at PGA National with expectations that far exceeded his game — a missed cut in Abu Dhabi, a first-round loss in the Match Play Championship. So when he was 7-over par through eight holes on the second round, he walked off the course and didn’t stop until he was in his car and headed home. It was a mistake he said he would never repeat.
Thursday brought another chapter of McIlroy and the Honda Classic.
With some long birdie putts, a few key saves, three birdies to start the back nine and two more at the end, McIlroy had a 7-under 63 to take a one-shot lead over Russell Henley after the first round.
“It’s not like I was out there thinking about what had happened last year or what had happened the year before that when I won,” McIlroy said. “It’s a new tournament. It’s on a tough golf course, and I need to focus all my energy and thoughts into playing these 18 holes. You can’t really let any other thoughts creep into your mind because it is such a tough golf course and you can’t really lose concentration out here.
“You’ve got to stay on point the whole time.”
That he was. It was the second time this year that McIlroy opened with a 63. He also did that at the Dubai Desert Classic, though McIlroy wound up tying for ninth when neither he nor anyone else could keep up with Stephen Gallacher.
Even so, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland is trending in the right direction.
“Coming in this week, I knew that I was playing well and I just wanted to try and get off to a good start,” he said. “Regardless of what happened last year or where it is, it’s always nice to shoot a round like this and get yourself in the mix early.”
Tiger Woods wouldn’t know the feeling so far this year.
In first tournament in a month, Woods couldn’t make a birdie putt early and had to scramble for pars late in his round. A birdie on the last hole gave him a 71, leaving him eight shots behind.
“I hit it good starting out, hit it kind of scrappy in the middle and then hit it good at the end,” Woods said. “But it was just one or the other. I either hit it good and missed the putt, and then scrap around and make a putt.”
In his other two events this year, Woods was eight shots behind after the opening round at Torrey Pines and five shots behind at Dubai. He goes into the second round Friday outside the cut line.
Henley opened with five birdies in six holes before he cooled off for a 64. Past champion Rory Sabbatini was at 65 with William McGirt and Jamie Donaldson of Wales.
Zach Johnson was four shots behind and thrilled about his 67. He hit two shots into the water on his way to a quadruple-bogey 8 on his second hole of the tournament. The former Masters champ followed with seven birdies to get back in the game.
“It was a day where it could have gone the other way — quick,” Johnson said.
Masters champion Adam Scott, in his first event in six weeks, opened with a 68. British Open champion Phil Mickelson had a 70.
McIlroy has been shifting gears since late last year, which he closed out with a win at the Australian Open. He had chances to win in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and he played well in a second-round loss to Harris English last week at Match Play.
But this looked like the McIlroy who won two majors, each by eight shots, bobbing along the fairways and swinging with no fear. It helped to make a few putts, such as the 25-foot birdie on No. 2 and a 45-foot birdie putt on No. 11. He had a few par saves that kept him motoring along, such as the up-and-down from 40 yards at No. 9, making a putt from just outside 10 feet.
He took off from there. He hit into 8 feet for birdie on the 493-yard 10th hole, made the long one at No. 11 and then stuffed a gap wedge into 6 feet on No. 12.
“You can’t fake it around here,” McIlroy said. “You have to play well to shoot good scores, and I was able to do that today.”
McIlroy put last year behind him, though it was hard to ignore the turnaround.