Oliver Brown: Rory McIlroy's swagger has returned
Rory McIlroy’s swagger is back. In the autumn of a fallow season that has yet to yield a single title, the world No 3 reminded us of his all of his preternatural talent with a blistering opening round of 65 to take a two-shot lead here at the HSBC Champions in Sheshan.
Such have been McIlroy’s travails that it is the only second time this year that he has held the tournament lead. But he gave every indication at the final World Golf Championship of the year that he was back to his formidable best with a seven-under-par round, a dropped stroke at the 11th the solitary blemish.
The Northern Irishman’s one sustained challenge came from Phil Mickelson, until the Open champion sullied his scorecard with an extraordinary implosion at the par-five seventh, finding the water twice en route to a quadruple-bogey nine.
McIlroy, by contrast, was the picture of serenity in amassing eight birdies, demonstrating a new-found comfort with the Nike clubs to which many have ascribed his ragged form of late.
A four-week break at home under the tutelage of childhood coach Michael Bannon has evidently restored him for this Asian swing, as he vaulted to the head of the field by two over Wales’ Jamie Donaldson and Spaniard Gonzalo Fernández-Castaño, winner of last week’s BMW Masters at nearby Lake Malaren.
The performance also all but assured McIlroy of his place at next month’s culmination of the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, after he entered this event outside the top 60 earners eligible for automatic invitations.
“It’s a great start – it felt good to be in control of my golf ball,” he said. “It’s the way I wanted and needed to begin, keeping in mind that I want to play myself in to Dubai and pick up my first win of the season as well.”
McIlroy could be forgiven for feeling restless in the quest for his maiden victory of 2013, having won major championships in each of the two previous seasons, and failed to secure any better than an eighth-place finish since he made the switch to Nike equipment in January. But he argued: “I’ve tried to stay patient the entire season. If I believe that I’m working on the right things, then it will all start to fall into place.
“It’s frustrating when you have had a couple of seasons where you have had success and then not being able to emulate it. The way I look at it, if I have a 25-year career, nine months isn’t all that long. If you look at the length of time you play as an 18-hole course, it is really only half a hole that you are struggling on.”
The 24-year-old’s persistence was in abundant evidence in his first round as he carved out scoring opportunities on almost every hole. At the 16th, a drivable par-four at Sheshan International, he was just over the back of a green with a three-wood, while at the eighth he escaped from a fairway bunker before setting up a birdie putt with a delicious wedge.
McIlroy has been offering glimpses of his revived form in recent weeks, with a strong driving display in South Korea and a confidence-restoring triumph over Tiger Woods in their exhibition match on Hainan Island. But this was the most emphatic signal that he has returned to the right path, even though his ingrained perfectionism prevented him from giving his ball-striking any more than a “seven” out of 10.
He has risked forgetting what front-running feels like, given that his only other lead all year came as far back as the Wells Fargo Championship in May. But this stunning round in Shanghai appeared to be a precursor of better days.