McIlroy cock of the walk again
 Rory McIlroy salutes the crowd after carding a four under 66 to take the halfway lead in the Honda Classic. Picture: Fran Caffrey  www.golffile.ie

Rory McIlroy salutes the crowd after carding a four under 66 to take the halfway lead in the Honda Classic. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Rory McIlroy might have walked off last year but for much of yesterday it looked as though he was about to turn the Honda Classic into another of his triumphal processions.

So comfortable is the 24-year old Co Down man with his game again — he reckons he hasn’t hit it as well since he won the US PGA and two FedEx Cup events in a magical four-week spell 18 months ago — that he looks all but unbeatable on a demanding PGA National track that is tailor-made for his high-octane game.

The Holywood star marked the first anniversary of the meltdown by coming back from a sloppy start to add a sublime 66 to his opening 63 to take the clubhouse lead on 11 under par 129.

He's one stroke clear of Zimbabwe’s Brendon de Jonge, who bogeyed his final hole for a 64, with Russell Henley two behind after a 68 and Lee Westwood (65) and Russell Knox, who also shot 63, three back on seven under.

The challenge now for McIlroy is to finish the job after failing to take advantage of fast starts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai earlier this year.

"This is the second straight tournament I've opened with a 63 so if I can keep building on these good starts, then hopefully I can start converting them into wins,” he said before admitting that he was trying too hard and displayed poor course management when failing to convert the halfway lead in Dubai into a victory.

 Rory McIlroy's body language says it all as he finishes just off the left edge of the green on his final hole at PGA National. Picture: Fran Caffrey  www.golffile.ie

Rory McIlroy's body language says it all as he finishes just off the left edge of the green on his final hole at PGA National. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Whatever about the Gulf Swing, McIlroy is clearly on a different trajectory to the youngster who fled this venue 12 months ago, albeit more guarded in his remarks and closely cosseted by his management.

Comparing last year’s damp squib to this week’s fireworks, he said: “It's different end of the spectrum I guess. I wasn't quite comfortable with my golf swing [last year]. I was still tinkering with equipment. I just wasn't feeling in control of what I needed to be in control of.

“This year is obviously a lot different. I’ve got off to a good start, I'm confident, I'm playing well. This is the second straight tournament I've opened with a 63 so if I can keep building on these good starts, then hopefully I can start converting.”

For the second year running, he started his second round poorly but rather than imploding, he blossomed.

On a cool, damp morning, poor drives on his first four holes led to bogeys at the 11th and 12th (his second and third) and he had to hole a six footer for par at the 14th just to avoid going three over for the day.

The sand save seemed to settle him down and he was soon into his stride, making a brilliant birdie from eight feet at the 16th before holing a tricky 12 footer for another at the par-five 18th to get back to level for the day.

 Despite struggling with his long and mid-irons, Graeme McDowell made seven birdies in a rollercoaster 67 to get to three under. Picture: Fran Caffrey  www.golffile.ie

Despite struggling with his long and mid-irons, Graeme McDowell made seven birdies in a rollercoaster 67 to get to three under. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

Intimidating when he’s in the groove with the long clubs, he’s even more ominous when he’s putting well and his tally of just 49 putts for the first 36 holes - 25 on Thursday and only 24 yesterday — is bad news for the opposition.

Armed with a lethal blade, he played a 10-hole stretch in the middle of his round from the 16th to the seventh in six under par and raced home in just 31 blows.

Robbed at the second when his 40 footer did a complete 360 around the rim and stayed out, he made a facile looking hat-trick of birdies from the third, saved par from six feet at the sixth after a blocked drive and then made another birdie from 30 feet at the par-three seventh to open up four-shot lead.

“I'm confident and 49 putts is one of the lowest putting totals after 36 I've probably had, maybe in my career,” he said, pleased that his work with Dave Stockton in Tucson last week is paying off. “So it's obviously going in the right direction."

As for his comeback from those early bogeys, he said: “I think it's just a sign of a little more maturity, as well, not really trying to force the issue or press, because I've made a couple of bogeys early.”

Graeme McDowell knows he has his work cut out to catch McIlroy after he made seven birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey in an adventurous 67 and still found himself eight behind on three under.

Praying that the wind blows now, McDowell said: “I was fighting my swing out there today but my short iron play kept me in it thank goodness and I made a few putts and hit a few nine irons and wedges close because by my medium and long iron play is god awful.

 Tiger Woods and Keegan Bradley share a joke at the 18th. Picture: Fran Caffrey  www.golffile.ie

Tiger Woods and Keegan Bradley share a joke at the 18th. Picture: Fran Caffrey www.golffile.ie

“I’ll need some wind to have a chance to catch whoever it is, whether it be the boy wonder or not.

“He got off to a bad start today and still shot 66. It’s perfect playing conditions for him — soft, ball in hand, suits his great driving, great iron play and the greens are perfect.

“Good playing so far from the boy but obviously I will be trying to go low tomorrow and give myself a chance.”

McDowell planned an afternoon on the range to sort out his swing with coach Pete Cowen.

"I played the par threes awful, two bogeys and a double and a birdie from the left trap on 17. I have a slightly different feel in my golf swing because  I’ve worked on it since last week and got some left arm downswing feels that aren’t really working for me

As for the return to form of McIlroy from the depths of despair here 12 months ago, his Ryder Cup partner was not surprised.

"It seems like a long time ago," he said. "It’s a long career and we all experience ups and downs. It’s how you react to those downs that make great players.

"We are seeing that he is a great champion because he has rebounded from what he has learned last year. No-one ever questioned the amount of talent he’s got. He’s one of the greats, technically, maybe ever.

"It is just a question of whether he can put it all together. It’s a hard game. It’s a long career and he is obviously back to playing great stuff again."

Phil Mickelson shot 71 to miss the projected level par cut by a shot but Tiger Woods had to battle hard to shoot 69 to make it on the limit.

"It was a grind, there's no doubt about it," Woods said.  "I certainly grinded my way around this place today.  I didn't hit it very good.  Just one of those days where I fought out a number, which was good."