What a difference a day makes. With three holes to play in the second round of the Quail Hollow Championship, Rory McIlroy was heading for his third missed cut on the trot. Moments later he was soaring on the wings of an eagle three at the par five seventh - his 16th hole.
“That three on seven could have been the turning point in the season,” McIlroy said after firing a best-of-the-day 66 on May Day to move up to a share of seventh place, just four shots behind leader Billy Mayfair.
He wasn’t exaggerating.
What a contrast to Friday at the Masters, when he cried Mayday-Mayday after a series of results that were not worth of the player tipped as a future world No 1 by the likes of Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy and even Tiger Woods himself.
Having finished 20th on his Masters debut and risen as high as seventh in the world on the back of his maiden win in the Dubai Desert Classic and another 17 top-10 finishes worldwide, McIlroy was hailed as the next great white hope.
But at Augusta he appeared exasperated by a game that had seemed like child’s play to him for most of his stellar 2009 season. Surprisingly for a normally upbeat, positive, 20 year old, he threatened to take six weeks off to clear his head and rest the niggling back injury that had prevented him from swinging like a bullwhip in spikes until this week.
He wanted to play like a kid again - whack it, go find it and then whack it again. In short, he was no longer the young gun with the barnet who was only denied becoming the youngest European No 1 since Seve Ballesteros and the inaugural Race to Dubai crown when sixth-former Lee Westwood took him behind the bike sheds at the season-ending Dubai World Championship and stole his lunch money.
When you have just one win under your belt, a defeat like that hurts and McIlroy took it hard. Come the first week in January and he was practising like a man possessed in Dubai for his rebranding as a world player capable of finishing third in events like the US PGA Championship.
As a result, he hurt his back but that was only the start of his problems. He’d already decided to take up membership of the PGA Tour in 2010, despite being advised by almost every senior figure at his management company ISM that playing on both sides of the Atlantic was taking on too much too soon.
Goaded on by high expectations - his own more so than those of others - McIlroy stuck to his guns. But after a solid start to the season in the Abu Dhabi, where he was third, he hurt his back as he finished sixth in Dubai.
As a result he did well to make the second round of the Accenture Match Play in Tucson and announced that he would start seeing the mental coach Dr Bob Rotella in an effort to find a way of becoming a more clinical finisher. A second tour victory is vital to his self-esteem but he played poorly in the Honda Classic, where had a sit down with no less a figure than Jack Nicklaus. He also played poorly in the WGC-CA Championship in Doral.
When he returned to the US for Shell Houston Open, he was lacklustre and lacking sharpness. He confessed that his confidence was low and couldn’t remember the last time he felt happy on a golf course.
Unsurprisingly, he flopped at the Masters, where weaknesses are magnified. He’d had enough for now, he said at the Masters. He was going home for the foreseeable - no Quail Hollow, no Sawgrass. See you at Wentworth.
Within days he had backtracked, admitting he’d overreacted. For that we can thank Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who sent him a text message that made him realise that sporting reverses are challenges that the great teams, the great champions, learn to overcome. In other words, McIlroy stopped him feeling sorry for himself.
Ferguson told McIlroy that sportsmen must learn from their mistakes. Tough times must back the champions come back stronger.
Honoured by Fergusons encouragement, McIlroy said: “I knew I had to get back out on the course quickly and show what I’m really capable of.”
His 66 featured nine birdies and bogeys at the first, 13th and 18th. Just three days before his 21st birthday, McIlroy was hardly complaining as he prepared to chase Mayfair’s nine under par total in a posse featuring sharpshooters such as Davis Love (-7), Phil Mickelson (-7), JJ Henry (-6), Dustin Johnson (-6), Angel Cabrera (-6), Anthony Kim (-5), Bill Haas (-5) and Jim Furyk (-5).
“It was a great round of golf. You know, I played really, really well. I feel as though I’ve been hitting it well for the last couple weeks, I’m just not really getting much out of my game. But today I knocked a few putts in and gave myself plenty of chances. A bit disappointing bogeying the last, but 66 is still a great score out there, and it puts me in a nice position going into tomorrow.
“If I’m within five when I get off [he’s only four behind] I’ve got a pretty good chance. I’m happy to be where I’m at because the last couple months has been a bit of a struggle for me. It’s just nice to get going and get myself into some sort of contention going into Sunday.
“I’ve just put a lot of work in. I struggled — I had a little bit of a back injury, which it’s still there, but it’s getting a lot better. It’ll probably take another two or three months to clear fully.
“But I feel as if I can swing with a lot more freedom and I can actually practice more, hit more balls and spend more time on the range, which has definitely helped. I put my old trusty putter back in the bag last night, which seemed to help. My putting was pretty good out there today. Hopefully I can do the same tomorrow.”
Explaining what’s gone wrong so far this season, he said: “This year I got off to pretty much a perfect start for me. I spent the week in Dubai, practiced really well, finished third in Abu Dhabi behind Martin Kaymer and Ian Poulter and finished sixth in Dubai. So my game was there, and then the back injury sort of flared up the last cup of rounds in Dubai.
“Since then it has been a little bit of a struggle. I’d get on the range and I’d hit balls and I’d maybe only hit 100 balls because I wasn’t feeling very good, so I’d have to stop my session short there, and it’s sort of been like that for the last couple months. Ever since the Match Play this year the whole season has been a bit stop-start, so I’m trying to get a bit of continuity. I’ve added a couple events to my schedule just to try and play a little bit more and just get a little bit of fluidity back into the season.”
Asked if he was aware of how close he came to missing the cut, he said: “Yeah, I bogeyed the 6th to go to 3-over par, and I knew I needed to birdie two of the last three holes to make the cut, and then I luckily eagled seven and had a good chance on 8 but didn’t take it. That three on seven could have been the turning point in the season. So yeah, I mean, I was very happy to make the cut, and I’m happy with my round today. I made three bogeys, so it could have been a little better, but I’m very pleased.
“I like this sort of golf course, tree-lined, a lot of definition off the tee. You can really see your shots, your shot shapes. It’s a little bit like Firestone in that way and a bit like Augusta, as well. When I drove in here Monday, I thought it was very Augusta-like in places, which I love. Yeah, you’ve got to hit all the shots around here.
“I think this is a sign that I was relieved and I could play with a bit more freedom when I was just going into the weekend and trying to shoot the best score I could. I was really happy to make the cut after making eagle on seven last night and made the most of that today.”
Padraig Harrington shot a two under par 70 to move up to tied 26th, seven shots off the pace on two-under.