Rory McIlroy kept his world No 1 quest on track after a gritty second round 67 left him just a stroke off the lead at the halfway stage of the Honda Classic.
Bidding for a victory that would see him become the first Irishman to top the world rankings, the 22-year old battled stiff afternoon breezes at PGA National but hung tough to birdie three of his last five holes.
His three under par effort left him tied for third with American Dicky Pride (67) on seven under, just a stroke behind joint leaders Tom Gilils (64) and Justin Rose (66).
“I had a few chances early on and didn’t take them,” said McIlroy, who birdied the par-five third with a great bunker shot to three feet but then missed several chances before dropping just his second shot of the week at the 13th.
This time he couldn’t get up and down from greenside sand but he made up for it on the way home with some superb play.
Digging deep, he birdied the 14th from just two and half feet, picked up another shot with a mid-iron to 15 feet at the par-three 15th and then holed a seven footer for a birdie the last to get to seven under.
It could have been even better for McIlroy had he been rewarded for his brilliant approach shots at the 16th and 17th. But he knows that this is a true marathon and if he keeps making pars, avoids a big number and sprinkles his rounds with the occasional birdie, he’ll win his third PGA Tour title on Sunday and become golf’s new No 1. In contrast to his career, the US Open champion is not getting ahead of himself.
“I kept making pars and making pars and then broke that run with a bogey on the 13th which was frustrating,” McIlroy said. “But to bounce back from that and birdie three of the last five holes was nice and puts me in great position going into the weekend.
“There’s still a lot of golf left, 36 holes. I just need to keep doing the same things, try to drive the ball in the fairway and give myself loads of opportunities and try and make a few, because you don’t have to make tons of birdies out here.
“You just have to keep the big numbers off your card, keep putting the ball on the greens and try not to short side yourself.
“I did that pretty well for the most part, made a couple of good saves around the turn and birdie three of the last five, which was nice.”
Graeme McDowell was one of a host of players to take advantage of calm morning conditions, blasting a six under 64 to get within five of the leaders on three under just 24 hours after struggling to a 73 in afternoon winds.
“The difference was in the conditons,” McDowell said. “This is a tough golf course and I hit a couple of destructive shots yesterday. Today I controlled it better, set up a few nice birdie opportunities and took them.”
McIlroy could have been a few shots better with six to play but his performance over the closing holes justified McDowell’s assertion that the number one ranking “is only the beginning for this guy.”
McDowell said: “I expect to win more majors but I know Rory McIlroy will win more majors. It would be nice to slip stream him a little bit because I feel I have a lot more in me as well.”
Padraig Harrington is six behind on two under after a 68 but knows that he needs help from the field or the weather if he is to claim a victory that could get him into next week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral.
Disappointed to bogey his last hole after bunkering his approach from the middle of the fairway, Harrington said: “It definitely could have been three or four better today.
“But I hit a lot of good putts today after hitting a lot of bad putts yesterday so I was happy with that but if there aren’t too many guys on eight under at the end of the day, two-under won’t be too bad if the wind blows.”
Harrington described getting to world No 1 as a phenomenal achievement for anyone, never mind 22-year old McIlroy.
“It’s never happened before in Irish golf,” said the Dubliner, who reached a career high of third in the world when he captured the 2008 Open at Royal Birkdale. “It would be an incredibly big deal, no doubt about it. I think it is an incredible achievement, regardless of his age. With his age, it adds something else to it.”
Only McIlroy, currently the world No 2, has ever been ranked higher. But it appears likely that the Co Down genius will break new ground for Irish golf sooner rather than later.
“No 1 in the world is very impressive,” Harrington said. “You can’t take it away fom him if he gets there. I am not looking at it age wise, it’s a phenomenal achievement to get to world No 1.”
The world No 1 ranking was far from Open champion Darren Clarke’s mind as he signed autographs after a 75 left him on eight over.
The Dungannon man played nicely on the front nine but holed nothing. After lipping out for birdie on the 13th, he held up four fingers to his caddie, indicating yet another putt that was afraid of the dark.
After eight straight pars, his spirit was broken when he found water at the 18th, his ninth, with what looked like a brilliant fairway wood. At three over, he was in big trouble and when he three-putted the par-five third for bogey, there was no coming back. Two birdies, a bogey and two double bogeys followed and the result was a homeward nine of 39 and an early trip to Miami.
To say he was bitterly disappointed with his putting would be an understatement.
“I am enveloped by a feeling of uselessness,” Clarke said. “There is an awful lot of good stuff there but when you take 33 and 34 putts, you can’t compete. I am not hitting it that bad.”