Back to his best — McIlroy lays down Masters marker with stunning 63

Back to his best — McIlroy lays down Masters marker with stunning 63
Rory McIlroy is back his comfort zone. Picture: Fran Caffrey

Rory McIlroy is back his comfort zone. Picture: Fran Caffrey

A year after admitting he couldn’t cope with any more pain, Rory McIlroy looks capable of inflicting so much torment on the opposition this season that it remains to be seen who can cope with him.

Twelve months after fleeing PGA National near to tears, so distressed was he by his poor play and a series of off-course headaches, the 24-year old world number eight opened his Honda Classic challenge with a beautifully crafted seven under par 63 to lead by one Russell Henley and strike a little fear into the hearts of his Masters rivals.

Looking fitter and stronger than ever, the 2012 Honda Classic champion missed just four fairways — three of them by no more than a few feet — and only five greens on what was the toughest course on the PGA Tour last year outside the majors. 

“I played really solid, the key to doing well around here is hitting fairways and greens, it is a real ball-striker’s golf course,” said McIlroy, who is two shots clear of Rory Sabbatini, William McGirt and former Irish Open champion Jamie Donaldson.

“If you can keep your ball in play you can give yourself plenty of birdie chances. That’s the name of the game here and that par save on nine kept that bogey free round alive."

Asked if it was sweet to lay the ghosts of last year to rest, McIlroy said: "No. Not really. It's not something I really thought about out there. Coming in this week I knew I was playing well.

Darren Clarke had a day to forget.  Picture: Fran Caffrey

Darren Clarke had a day to forget.  Picture: Fran Caffrey

"I made a good start and I've been able to do that a few times this year, got myself into contention but didn't quite convert those into wins in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

"So I wanted to try to do the same here and it was nice to do it, regardless of what happened last year or where it is. It's always nice to shoot a round like this and get yourself in the mix early."

He finished with back to back birdies for his first bogey free round in 18 trips around PGA National and his second 63 of the year, using the blade just 25 times in all.

And while it was a day that started ominously enough with a long approach at the first forcing him to chip from deep rough and hole a 10 footer for par, he made it all look utterly effortless.

Bar being forced to get up and down from sand right of the short fifth and hole a 10 footer for par at the ninth off his only poor drive, it was generally textbook stuff from the two-time major winner.

He birdied the second from 28 feet, chipped close from the apron for another birdie at the par-five third and had chances for further birdies at the fourth and seventh.

He then birdied the first three holes on the back nine, holing from eight feet at the 10th before a 45-footer staggered into the hole on the last roll at the 11th. At the 12th he blasted a 310 yards drive and flipped a wedge to six feet from 144 yards and holed the putt to grab a share of the lead.

Birdie chances narrowly missed at the 13th and 14th and when he safely negotiated the tough 15th in par, only a disaster through the rest of the Bear Trap holes could deny him an opening round in the mid-60s.

He did even better than that. After comfortably two putting from 22 feet at the 16th, he hit a 191-yard seven iron 12 feet left of the stick at the 17th and holed home the putt with his parents Gerry and Rosie watching from the grandstand.

At the last, he was unlucky to see his 300 yard drive run through the fairway by a few feet, found a greenside trap with a five wood but splashed out to xx feet and holed the putt.

If McIlroy is looking like the early favourite for the Masters, Tiger Woods preparations are up in the air after he hinted after an opening 71 that he may changed his pre-Augusta routine for the first time.

Tiger Woods hinted that he may make more changes to his pre-Masters routine,  Picture: Fran Caffrey

Tiger Woods hinted that he may make more changes to his pre-Masters routine,  Picture: Fran Caffrey

Following Wednesday's pro-am, Woods was asked if there was anything different he was planning to do in preparation for the Masters and said: “Still looking into that, yeah. Still looking to possibly make some changes going in there.”

A lacklustre opening round, featuring three birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey six at the second, his 11th, has left a question mark over his form.

After missing the cut in his opening event of the year at Torrey Pines and coming home a lowly 41st in Dubai before skipping last week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play, he has broken 70 just once in eight strokeplay rounds.

While he’d normally limit his pre-Masters routine to the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral next week before a final playing appearance at Bay Hill, he didn’t rule out a change of schedule or habits.

"It could be all of the above,” he said.

Darren Clarke had a forgettable day, dropping three shots in his last two holes for a 77 that left him second last in the 144-man field on seven over par.

The former Open champion found water with his approach and double bogeyed the second before dropping another shot at the eighth to turn in 38.

The then lurched home in 39 with birdies at the 13th and 15th completely obliterated by bogeys at the 10th, 12th and 18th and a double bogey five at the 19-yard 17th, where he hit his tee shot into the lake.

Graeme McDowell parred his last 10 holes to shoot a level par 70 for a share 61st place. He birdied the first and eighth but double bogey the fourth, where he was bunkered and took four to get up and down.