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McIlroy 63 banishes 'walk-out' into oblivion

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Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy

USA Today Sports

Padraig Harrington anxiously watches his tee shot during the first round of the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort in Florida yesterday

Padraig Harrington anxiously watches his tee shot during the first round of the Honda Classic at PGA National Resort in Florida yesterday

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Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy said an admirable act of contrition at PGA National on Tuesday, but there was nothing remotely contrite about the 24-year-old's imperious performance as he banished memories of his darkest hours in golf.

McIlroy was roundly applauded for this week's heartfelt admission that he should never have walked off the Champion Course midway through the second round of last year's Honda Classic.

Still, the only way the Holywood native was ever going to clear up the mess he made that ill-fated Friday was by deed, not word. And boy did McIlroy deliver with the flawless, seven-under-par 63 which propelled him straight to the top of the leaderboard at The Honda Classic, one ahead of Russell Henley.

Surrounded once again by an aura of impenetrable self-confidence, he actually turned the clock further back to 2012 and a victory at Palm Beach Gardens which propelled him to World No 1 for the first time. It was easy to once again imagine current world No 8 McIlroy establishing a new order in golf, especially in the wake of a lack-lustre opening 71 by current No 1 Tiger Woods.

This facile 63 he shot on the hardest course on the PGA Tour outside the Majors (albeit in dead calm) was the polar opposite to his shameful implosion 364 days earlier, when McIlroy was stripped of confidence, hope and then dignity as he quit after stumbling blindly to seven-over through the first eight holes of the back nine.

Well, the two-time Major champion showed beyond doubt that he's not only back, but is better, longer, stronger and more consistent than before.

If intensive daily sessions in the gym have turned an already stocky young man into Mr Muscle, it's the new-look, sweetly-grooved swing he's sculpted with coach Michael Bannon and his imperious ball-striking which establish McIlroy as 'The Man'.

Comfortable at two-under after sinking an 18-foot par-saver at the ninth, McIlroy did not walk timidly into that same back nine. He blitzed it, making his desire for retribution plain with a breathtaking 195 yard mid-iron to 10 feet at 10 for the first of a fabulous trilogy of birdies.

Strutting his stuff like this, even McIlroy's putter appears invincible. He drained a 30-footer for three at 11, where he'd made six on his last competitive visit 364 days earlier – then fired a six-footer straight into the middle of the cup at 12 to claim a share of the lead on five-under.

He even tamed the infamous Bear Trap as he breezed through 15 and 16 in par before holing a sweet 12-footer for two at 17, followed by a closing birdie at 18 for his lowest round at Palm Beach Gardens and first in 18 without a bogey.

 

SOLIDLY

"I played very well, really solidly from tee to green today," said McIlroy, who immediately dedicated one of his finest rounds on the PGA Tour to his mother Rosie, who celebrated her birthday yesterday.

"The key here is hitting the fairway and greens and I managed to do that. It's a good ball-strikers course. I started well, had a nice little stretch around the turn and made a couple of birdies at the finish," he added, impressively understating his achievement.

Padraig Harrington also gave us a glimpse of the rare old times as he recovered his once-renowned scoring touch during an impressive 68.

Harrington has endured more than his fair share of frustration during four and a half years without a win in either Europe or the US since landing his third Major title in 13 months at the 2008 US PGA.

So there was feeling behind Harrington's words when he said: "You know, I didn't play so well today, but I scored well and I haven't done that for a while. Playing badly and scoring well is a lot more satisfying than playing well and scoring badly."

Nobody knows that better than Harrington, who rebounded from an untidy bogey out of a greenside bunker at the second to land a magnificent eagle three at three. It was set-up with a fine 292-yard drive and glorious 228-yard approach to eight feet but, in keeping with his point about finishing, Harrington said: "they were two good shots, but the big thing was holing the putt there."

He then holed a 31-foot birdie putt at the par-three fifth; pulled his tee shot and approach into the rough on his way to an untidy bogey at nine, then, after a 313-yard drive down 12, hit his approach to 11 feet and adroitly polished off another birdie.

Harrington claimed his first PGA Tour victory at The Honda in 2005, but that was at Mirasol.

Graeme McDowell made two birdies (at one and eight) and a double-bogey six (at four) in an eventful opening, but the Portrush man then let several chances slip with his usually reliable putter as he endured 10 straight pars on the way to a frustrating 70.

Darren Clarke found water on his way to double-bogey sixes at the second and 17th holes of a wayward, seven-over par 77 on his return from the chest muscle injury which forced him to retire after 18 holes at Riviera Country Club last month.

HONDA CLASSIC,

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Irish Independent