Rory McIlroy’s mini crisis looks certain to be short-lived after he carded his first sub-par round of the year to overshadow a superb Graeme McDowell in the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami.
Despite three putting the last, the world No 1 hit six birdies in a three under 69 to calm fears about his mental state just a week after storming off the course in the Honda Classic.
“It’s nice, it’s the first red number I’ve shot all year, competitively, anyway,” McIlroy said. “I’ve shot a few in practice. Said to my Mum walking from the 15th to the 16th tee, I was like, oh, my God, I’m in red numbers.
“But you know, it’s good. It’s nice to shoot something in the 60s and definitely something to build on over the next couple of days.”
McIlroy’s resurgence stole a little glory from a brilliant McDowell, who produced an impressive all round display to set up a third round showdown with halfway leader Tiger Woods at Doral’s TPC Blue Monster.
The Ulsterman missed just two fairways and had just 26 putts as he birdied his last two holes for a 67 that left him just two shots behind a sensational Woods, who took his birdie tally to a career best 17 in two days as he added a 65 to his opening 66 to lead on 13 under.
McDowell serenely cruised around the Blue Monster to remain as the only player in the 65-man field without a bogey.
And he was delighted to birdie the last two holes and secure a date with Woods in today’s final two-ball as he set the clubhouse target and Phil Mickelson (67) failed to match him in the next group.
McDowell said: “I saw Phil sneaking up the leaderboard there behind me and I said to Kenny, let’s spoil this party tomorrow.
“I’m sure they would have liked Tiger and Phil in the last group tomorrow, would have been great for the tournament, but I certainly will enjoy the position of being in the last group and the mix. That’s right where I want to be.”
McDowell turned a somewhat disappointing season into a memorable one last December when he held off Woods in his season-ending World Challenge to end a two-year victory drought. And he won’t be intimidated in the least today after an impressive start to his season so far.
“I have to say I’m generally feeling quite calm and patient inside,” McDowell said. “I don’t feel like I’m trying to force the issue too much. I guess I found a little state of mind at Tiger’s event last year where, I felt very under control and calm emotionally and I’ve found that really the best place for me to be when I’m playing great golf.”
Mickelson needed to shoot a 66 to seal a final round pairing with Woods but a 67 left tied for third with Steve Stricker on 10 under par.
The Ulsterman began the day tied for the lead with Woods, Freddie Jacobson, Sergio Garcia and Masters winner Bubba Watson on six under thanks to an immaculate 66.
And he continued to play rock solid golf on another warm day in Miami, closing with his fifth birdie of the day from just three feet at the 160-yard ninth to lead set the pace
Starting on the 10th, the world parred first seven holes before finally holing a five footer for birdie at the 17th to top the leaderboard on seven under.
He then got up and down from greenside sand at the par-five first, holing a 12 footer to remain near the head of affairs and live up to his ‘big brother’ role to the rusty McIlroy.
The 2010 US Open winner has worked hard on his short game over the winter months with special emphasis on his bunker play and putting.
But while he was delighted to take just 26 putts for the second day running, it was his driving that pleased him most.
“I drove it great today,” McDowell said. “Probably the best I’ve driven it this season. Put a new driver in the bag this week, just with slightly more loft on it than I’ve been using, just getting a little bit more flight and controlling my flight a little bit better.”
Having negotiated the tough third and fourth holes in par, McDowell played to his strengths at the fifth, firing a 120-yard approach to eight feet and rolling in the putt to remain tied for second with later starter Mickelson, who eventually shot a 67 to finish on 10 under alongside Steve Stricker, who also shot 67.
McDowell almost holed a curling chip with a hybrid club from the back of the sixth, missed an eight-foot chance at the seventh but got up and down from a bunker for birdie at the par-five eighth, sneaking a 10 footer in the side door.
He then finished in style, firing a brilliant tee shot inside three feet at the ninth to set up a closing birdie two.
Padraig Harrington remained near the back of the field on four over par as he made two birdies and two bogeys in a second round 72.
But there were positive signs of improvement from the Dubliner, who made few errors and putted solidly without setting the world on fire.
McIlroy, who gave up the pre-shot rehearsal of his backswing that marked his opening 73, followed a birdie at the par-five first with a three-putt bogey at the fourth and another dropped shot at the sixth, where he fluffed a chip.
It looked as though it might prove to be another disappointing day for the 23-year old following last week’s meltdown, Wednesday’s public apology and Tthursday’s 73.
But he moved up a gear over the last 10 holes, firing a wonder second to the par five eighth only to pull the seven foot eagle putt wide of the hole.
After tapping in for birdie to get back to level for the day, he picked up shots at the par-five 10th and 12th and another from six feet at the 14th to move in the middle of the pack on two under.
He birdied the 16th to get to four under for the day and hit a brilliant drive and a solid second to the tough 18th only to three putt for the fourth time in two rounds, lipping out from two and a half feet for par.
Reflecting on a tough start to his season, McIlroy said: “You go through these periods in golf where you just have a tough time and things don’t click right away. It’s understandable, it would be great if it wasn’t like that, and it would make the game a lot easier.
“I’m pleased with today. Overall I saw some positives out there, and as I said something to build on going into the next two days, and obviously the next few weeks.”
Woods again putted brilliantly for his 65 as he chased his seventh Cadillac Championship win and his fourth tour victory at Doral.
“I’m playing well and I made a bunch of putts,” said Woods who had eight birdies and just one bogey on his card. “But more importantly, I left myself in the right spots to make putts and I think that’s probably the biggest key is that I left myself where I didn’t have that many downwind, downhill, downgrain, downwind putts.
“I kept leaving myself where I could be aggressive. These things are getting baked out fast and they are getting really tough to get close or even hold the green sometimes. It was important to leave my ball in the right spot.”
With the course set to be torn up and rebuilt over the next fortnight, Woods hopes the tournament organisers take the course to the limit over the weekend with baked, firm greens set to cause havoc if the wind blows.
“You know, it would be fun if they did. We did it last year at Bay Hill on Sunday. It basically was a U.S. Open that broke out in Orlando. We don’t get too many opportunities where the weather cooperates where they can push the golf course to a point where it’s pretty tough like that.”
Mickelson is tied for third with Steve Stricker on 10 under after they shot 67s with McDowell alone in second on 11 under.
The 2010 US Open champion reckons the Blue Monster could show its teeth over the weekend, especially if they let the greens dry out before they are “blown up” as new owner Donald Trump said of the imminent redesign.
“Don’t know what they are doing with them, letting them burnout and dig them out Monday, so doesn’t matter what happens to them this weekend.” McDowell said. “They are funny colors already, yellow and brown and all sort of stuff going on out there.
“It’s been really firm. Obviously very dry conditions, dry and windy and warm. Yeah, they do look like Saturday and Sunday greens. I would call them Saturday greens. Not quite Sunday greens yet but they were certainly Saturday greens.
“Interesting to see what happens with the forecast this weekend. Someone said a little bit more wind, so it’s going to be a really, really tough test if it starts to blow around here.”