Rory McIlroy bullish over Honda hopes after ironing out tee gremlins
SENDING Rory McIlroy out onto a course with a dodgy driver is like dumping Dirty Harry on the mean streets of San Francisco with a peashooter instead of his trusty .45 Magnum.
Well, McIlroy will be fully tooled up today for the opening of his title defence at The Honda Classic on the treacherous Champion Course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens.
The Holywood star got bounced out of the Accenture Match Play first round by Shane Lowry but, crucially, was delighted with the way he hit the ball in Tucson with his new Nike Covert driver, which was badly off kilter as he missed the cut in Abu Dhabi last month.
With McIlroy once again confident of being able to hit his ball with Magnum Force off the tee, the rest of his game can be expected to fall into place on a course he mastered last February as he became the first Irishman to reach world No 1.
Especially after working on the range all week with coach Michael Bannon to ease out the timing problem which caused McIlroy to hit several iron shots right of their intended target against his good friend Lowry.
He won't know how well everything has bedded in until he tries it in the white heat of competition over the next couple of days, but the 23-year-old is bullish about his prospects of getting himself into the mix at the weekend.
"I'd love to contend and to have a chance going into Sunday," said McIlroy yesterday.
"I feel like my game is good enough for that. It's just a matter of going out there and doing it where it counts, with a scorecard in your hands.
"I feel like most parts of my game are really in good shape and I was particularly happy with the way I drove the ball in Arizona, even if it was only for one round. Hopefully I can piece it together on the course."
PGA National is just 12 minutes by car from the $9.5m home McIlroy bought in Palm Beach Gardens during the winter.
As they did during last year's Florida Swing, his mum Rosie and dad Gerry are staying with him.
It's a similar set-up to last year, when McIlroy rented a house in the same area and enjoyed close family support, from his mother's home cooking to his dad's company and sage advice, as he purred home in the Honda.
"It's always nice to play a tournament where you're very familiar with the area," he explained. "Also, you can go back to your own place and sleep in your own bed.
"You just live at your own pace and can get away from the buzz of the tournament. It definitely helped me last year and, hopefully, it will be the same again this year.
"Mum and Dad are enjoying themselves. Dad has never played so much golf in his life before and he's loving it, while Mum's having a great time getting a nice colour by the pool, so it's great."
McIlroy kept his cool on Sunday at the Champion Course last year to win by two from Tiger Woods despite a sensational 62 in the final round by the former world No 1.
There are few more threatening stretches in golf than the Bear Trap, the par-three 15th, par-four 16th and par-three 17th at PGA National.
Yet McIlroy breezed through that daunting test in each of the four rounds last year, playing that stretch in three-under for the week with no bogeys.
Tiger, this year's tournament favourite, looked a little wayward with his tee shots in practice yesterday.
So a few of McIlroy's famous neighbours in Jupiter, namely Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen, Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els, Lee Westwood and Dustin Johnson, might also make the most of 'home advantage' on a course softened by two-and-a-half inches of rain in the past week.
Yet one guy who cannot be overlooked is Graeme McDowell. After a couple of days of rewarding work with coach Pete Cowen on the range at the Lake Nona resort in Orlando, the Portrush man is in buoyant mood.
McDowell has finished top-10 at The Honda in the past two years, posting a round of 64 on both occasions, so there's clearly something about this place that he likes. For his sake, one hopes the ocean breezes blow this weekend.
Simply making the weekend is McIlroy's first priority. Scheduled to play just two more events before the Masters, he needs to get 72 holes of competitive golf under his belt after playing just three rounds so far in 2013.
That's the only sure way for the Ulsterman to regain rhythm and self-assurance.
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