The real Rory McIlroy is back. His odds to become Open champion for a second time in four years reflect that, having tumbled from around 400-1 to 4-1 on the back of an astonishing turnaround at Royal Birkdale.
His caddie, JP Fitzgerald, sparked that with his much-needed intervention after the world No 4 had dropped five shots in the opening six holes in Thursday’s first round, but a round of 68 that backed up the 71 salvaged by McIlroy was all down to the man making the swings.
It was McIlroy at his best, taking up where he had left off when covering the last eight holes in four under the previous day as he started with a brilliant birdie – it was set up by an opening tee shot that went 372 yards – before quickly picking up another shot at the third.
By then, it was clear for everyone to see that he had shaken off his recent struggles, having missed three cuts in four events, and he would certainly have liked the Scottish Open punter who labelled him “f****** s****” to have been there to see him play Birkdale’s beast of a sixth hole.
It was mastered with perfection, after all. A majestic drive was followed by an equally majestic approach to around three or four feet. Putts of that length hadn’t been going in as he suffered early exits from the US Open, Irish Open and Scottish Open, but this one was despatched into the centre of the hole.
If that hole alone wasn’t enough to convince anyone that McIlroy is capable of going on here to repeat his 2014 Claret Jug at Royal Liverpool, then the grit and determination he showed to save par at three holes in a row at the start of his back nine surely did the job.
Fist pumps followed the 15-footers he holed at both the tenth and 11th to save par 4s before he played a magnificent bunker shot to leave himself with a tap-in for his 3 at the 12th, one of the great holes on the Open rota.
It proved one recovery too many as he then dropped his first shot of the day at the 13th before a wayward tee shot led to another bogey two holes later. It was job done, though, as he repaired part of the damage with a birdie at the long 17th.
“Very happy,” said the four-time major winner afterwards. “I think anything around even par today is going to be a great score. To birdie three of the first six and give myself that little cushion to play with was nice.
“I made some key up-and-downs on the start of the back nine. To be in after two days and be under par for this championship after the way I started, I’m ecstatic with that.”
On those par saves, he added: “They’re the putts that haven’t quite been going in over the past few weeks.
“That’s all it takes to keep a round going, and to see those putts go in on 10 and 11 gives me a lot of confidence going into the weekend.
“I hit some quality shots out there. I saw a lot of better iron shots. I saw some really good putts going in. I was happy to see that and just have to try to keep that going for the next two days.”