RORY McILROY took the scenic route around East Lake yesterday but still remained bang on course for the $10m FedEx Cup jackpot, especially after a shocking second-round implosion by Tiger Woods.
McIlroy's two-under-par 68, featuring a splendid eagle three on 15, lifted him to three-under through his first 36 holes at The Tour Championship.
Though four shy of leader Jim Furyk, McIlroy made up ground he'd lost on Thursday to his closest challenger as Tiger undermined his prospects of his third FedEx Cup title in six years with a second-round 73.
Significantly, McIlroy is best-placed of the five players who went into the PGA Tour's season finale with their FedEx Cup destiny in their own hands.
Tied seventh in the tournament, he's one ahead of Brandt Snedeker, leads Woods by two and Phil Mickelson by three, while Nick Watney is in last place in the 30-man field on nine-over-par.
Yet McIlroy's focus is more on the tournament than pot of FedEx Cup gold, saying: "First and foremost, I have to think of my position in this tournament and nothing else.
"If it comes down to it on Sunday where I really know what I have to do and have a decision to make between protecting my lead in the FedEx Cup or trying to win the golf tournament, I know which one I'm going to choose," he added. At the minute, I'm just concentrating on trying to play as well as I can."
Greg Norman's laughable suggestion earlier this week that Tiger is intimidated by McIlroy was turned on its head once again yesterday. After shooting a 66 to the Ulsterman's 69 when they played together in the first round, Tiger struggled once again in McIlroy's absence, his slipshod second-round 73 strengthening belief that he's actually inspired by the youngster's company.
Tiger's still capable of the spectacular, like the stunning par he made after driving deep into the trees at 14. He hit a superb shot through a skylight in the canopy and, after his ball rebounded off the roof of a corporate marquee into greenside rough, Woods got up and down for an unlikely four.
Only he doesn't do it as often.
Instead it's McIlroy, his confidence boosted by his second Major title success at the US PGA at Kiawah last month, who displays Tigeresque confidence and uncanny powers of recovery. He even out-performed his playing companion Mickelson in that department yesterday as the left hander also stalled in the FedEx race with a 71.
Furyk was a man on fire, as he opened with seven successive threes on his way to six birdies as he completed the outward half in just 29 strokes. By the time he rolled in a seven-footer at 10, Furyk (42) winner of the 2010 FedEx Cup, had needed to sink putts amounting to an aggregate of just 27 feet for all seven of those birdies. Yet Furyk's charge slowed as he made just two more birdies and three bogeys on his way to a bizarrely frustrating second-round 64.
Suspicions that Mickelson might be unwilling to fraternise with his playing partner just seven days before the Ryder Cup at Medinah were dismissed on the fourth green. "That was an awesome shot, Rory," said the 42-year-old American with sincerity after McIlroy performed a mini-miracle out of an awful lie through the back of the green.
You could hear a full-blooded thump as his clubhead hit the turf but the ball rose and fell in a gentle arc, landing just on the fringe before dribbling out to five feet. In keeping with recent practice, McIlroy then holed the par-saving putt.
Between them, Mickelson and McIlroy managed to find just one of the first five fairways but still played every one of those holes in par.
The first was a wonderful case in point. McIlroy hit his three-wood into the right rough before blasting his ball out of a buried lie in the springy Bermuda grass and into the left greenside trap. After carving his tee shot left of the fairway, Mickelson hit his approach into the bunker on the right.
With the hole cut on the low front tier, McIlroy had no option but to hit away from the flag to the top of the slope. The crowd sighed in disappointment as his ball rolled to a halt -- but it had only stopped to ask for directions.
After a brief pause, it rolled right, down the hill, the roar of the crowd rising as the ball descended, then subsiding as it just missed the cup before coming to a rest four feet past.
The Californian's shot from the sand was a lot less difficult but he executed it brilliantly, leaving a tap-in for four.
For all their creativity, they still made just one birdie on the first nine, when McIlroy holed from 22 feet at the par-three sixth. Indeed, this would be his only birdie of the day.
Mickelson's magic spell was broken on seven, where he drove into a difficult lie in a fairway trap on his way to a double-bogey six. McIlroy's only bogey came at 14, where his luck ran out and he had to pitch back onto the fairway from trees.
However, in keeping with his recent run of three wins in four tournament, he holed-out from 25 feet for that facile eagle at 16, just as Tiger was making an ugly double-bogey at eight.
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