RORY McIlroy has buried himself in golf since breaking off his engagement to Caroline Wozniacki. Now he’s threatening to bury the opposition in every event.
On a rain-hit day – play was suspended for 45 minutes just after the second round had started and it remained wet most of the morning – McIlroy moved ominously into the clubhouse lead in the 96th US PGA Championship at Valhalla.
A four-under 67, the highlight of which was an eagle from 30 feet at the 18th – his ninth hole – gave the 25-year-old a nine-under-par halfway total and, at the time he finished, a two-shot lead over American Ryan Palmer.
Since splitting up from tennis star Wozniacki, McIlroy has won three times – the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in the same week he made that announcement and, back-to-back within the past three weeks, the Open Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “I think it has happened to me for the better,” said the Northern Irishman in reply to being asked how he seemed to have taken a huge change in his life almost in his stride. “I’ve put a little bit more time into my golf and it has refocused me in a way. I’ve really just buried myself in my golf game and it seems to be working. I’ve practised hard, done all the right things and I’m reaping the rewards. Golf is the No 1 priority to me and, while I’m on this run of form, I want to try and keep it going as long as possible.”
Having found his mojo after failing to turn chances into victories in the first half of the season, McIlroy is now an impressive 41-under-par in his last ten competitive rounds. “I’m going to try to keep the pedal down and get as many ahead as possible,” he declared of his intentions to maintain that impressive run of scoring over the weekend.
As the world No 1 savoured the possibility of being out in front at halfway in the season’s final major – an event he won by a record eight shots at Kiawah Island two years ago – McIlroy revealed his weekend strategy had changed since the day he blew a four-shot lead with nine holes to play in the 2011 Masters.
“I’ve went protection mode once in my career and it was [then],” he said. “That didn’t work out very well. So I said to myself, ‘I’ll never do that again’. My mindset has stayed the same since that day at Augusta. If I’m two ahead going into the weekend here, I’m going to try to get three ahead; and if I’m three ahead, I’m going to try to get four ahead; and if I’m four ahead, I’m going to try to get five ahead.”
McIlroy’s start in the rain wasn’t a taste of what was to come. After missing the fairway on the right at the tenth – his opening hole – he had to settle for a par-5, though, admittedly, that was a two-shot improvement from the previous day after pulling his approach out of bounds.
After also failing to find the fairway at the 13th, he then saw an eight-foot par putt horse-shoe out but, after repairing that spillage with birdies from 15 feet and 18 feet at the 13th and 15th respectively, a 30-footer was rolled in with what looked like relative ease for an eagle at the par-5 18th to move to eight-under for the tournament.
Already a beast at 500 yards, the par-4 second had become even more difficult without any run whatsoever off the tee and McIlroy dropped his second shot of the day there after finding a greenside bunker. He got up and down from another trap to save par at the fifth, produced a sublime chip across the length of the green to do likewise at the next before making the seventh, a par-5 measuring 597 yards and playing it in the conditions, look ridiculously easy.
His swing in thumping a drive up the left side of the double fairway was majestic. He got relief after the ball embedded in its pitchmark then whacked a fairway wood to around six feet. It deserved to be turned into an eagle but a poor putt missed the hole by an inch. His effort for birdie at the next was significantly better but stopped agonisingly short.
The thing that has been so impressive about McIlroy during this sensational run of form, though, has been the way he’s not allowed anything to faze him. Faced with a similar putt from 16 feet at the ninth, he judged the pace and break to perfection. In it went. It had been another good day at the office.
Asked if he now expected to complete a memorable hat-trick, McIlroy said: “No, because I can’t control what other people do. But I do expect to do the things that I know and I can do and control. And, if I know that if I do those well, there’s a good chance that I’ll win and it [winning two majors in the same season] would be big.”
Palmer played his round in two parts, having been in the first group out when play was suspended after just 15 minutes due to flooding. “It was tough when we teed off,” he admitted after finishing with two birdies. “I wasn’t sure we should have teed off, to be honest, as you could barely see the fairway.”
The 37-year-old Texan just missed out on making the 2010 Ryder Cup team and, lying 32nd in the standings, came into the final qualifying event as a longshot to be at Gleneagles next month. “If you win this week, you’re in so I’ll just try and let that take care of itself,” he said.
Steve Stricker, who is definitely heading for Perthshire but as one of Tom Watson’s vice-captains, carded a 68 to sit on five-under alongside Swede Henrik Stenson (71) and Canadian Graham DeLaet (68). Englishman Lee Westwood and American Kevin Chappell, the overnight leaders along with Palmer, were among the afternoon starters, as was Tiger Woods and the Scottish quartet of Colin Montgomerie, Stephen Gallacher, Marc Warren and Russell Knox.