McIlroy had missed the cut in his home event for the last three years, but added a second round of 70 to his opening 67 to head into the third round just a shot off the lead shared by Masters champion Danny Willett and Scotland’s Marc Warren.
And, despite failing to engage the extra gear he felt necessary to claim a first win of the season, the four-time major winner found himself with a three-shot lead with three holes to play before play was suspended due to darkness after two delays for bad weather.
“I think they made the right call,” said the 27-year-old, who was involved in a lengthy discussion with a rules official on the 16th tee before play was finally abandoned for the day. “It was getting dark out there. I struggled to read my putt on 15 and wasn’t really comfortable to hit the tee shot on 16. Actually the tee shot would have been OK to hit I think, but I didn’t feel the point to hit one tee shot and come back tomorrow morning anyway to play the second shot.
“I don’t feel like we delayed it too much by not hitting that tee shot. I think they made the right decision and I’m happy that I can go out there in the morning and hopefully hit that tee shot in the sunshine.
“I’ve got two par fives in the last three holes to try and get another couple birdies and go into the final round with a nice lead.”
On a day punctuated by stoppages because of the threat of lightning, Warren’s challenge faded but Willett remained in the hunt, three shots behind McIlroy, with Scotland’s Russell Knox and South Africa’s Richard Sterne another stroke adrift, Knox making a fortunate birdie on the 16th after his approach hit rocks on the edge of a water hazard but bounced forward on to the green. Knox, who dumped three balls into the water on the 17th while in contention for the Players Championship last week, parred the 18th to set the clubhouse target on five under and said: “I think I was due a good break. I had a good hybrid distance on 16 and I just chunked it. I had given up on it to be honest and when I saw it hit the rock, I was like, that’s going forward. So I was very fortunate there.”
Spain’s Rafael Cabrera-Bello had been six under par with two holes to play only to find water off the tee on the 17th to run up a double bogey before the first suspension. And the world No.30 then bogeyed the last on the resumption.