Rory McIlroy produced a stellar putting performance in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and insisted he's rekindled his love for the game.
The Co Down man (28) holed 110-feet of putts on Bay Hill's slick greens, ratting in eight putts between six and 25 feet en route to a two-under 70 that left him tied for 12th, six shots behind leaders Henrik Stenson and Bryson DeChambeau on five-under-par.
His three-month break at the end of last year prompted him to give himself an unprecedented eight events to get ready for Masters.
And while his recent form has been poor, he dismissed concerns he's in danger of suffering frustration and loss of confidence.
"I'll tell you after Augusta," he quipped before adding that he's confident he's made the correct decision.
"I definitely don't feel like I've got stale or in any way frustrated or feel like it's tedious playing all these weeks in a row or monotonous in any way," he said midway through his fifth start in six weeks.
"I like being out here, I like playing golf. I feel like over the last couple of months of 2017 into this year I sort of rediscovered my love for the game a little bit.
"I'm even enjoying playing casual rounds of golf more."
A good day on the greens was exactly what McIlroy needed on a day when a struggling Tiger Woods battled back from two over at the turn to shoot a miraculous 72 and Graeme McDowell was the only other Irish player to make the cut.
McIlroy's decision to change putter proved key as he tops the strokes-gained putting charts this week —nearly six strokes better than the field and 10 shots better than his performance last week.
"I went to the longer putter," McIlroy said of his move back to a 34 1/4 inch model prompted by working with Brad Faxon recently. "I'm not quite as stiff and wooden. Basically, I just went back to a length and a feel that I have had success with."
His confidence on the greens grew from the moment he made a six-footer for par at his opening hole, then rolled in an eight-footer for birdie at his fourth (Bay Hill's 13th) before making a 25-footer for another birdie at his sixth.
While he had little chance of saving par from 35 feet at the first, his 10th, he made a 10 footer for a bogey at the next after putting himself in an impossible position from the tee before making three seven-footers in a row for birdies from his 13th.
His biggest error of the day came at the eighth, where he went for the green from the deep rough and came up short in the water.
He could easily have run up his second double-bogey of the week after Thursday's closing six turned a 67 into a 69, but hit an 87-yard wedge to 12 feet instead and curled in the putt to drop just one shot.
Pádraig Harrington missed the cut for the fifth time in six starts after he hit two tee shots into the lake at his 15th and went from one-under to three over with a quadruple-bogey nine there.
He required two birdies in his last three holes to survive but while he made a 36-footer at his 16th, he missed from 18 feet on his final hole and shot 75 to miss out by a stroke one on two-over par.
Shane Lowry birdied three of his last five holes for a 72 that left him a shot further back, the damage done by a cold putter early on and a double bogey seven at the easiest hole so far this week, the 16th (his seventh).
Woods ended up on his knees as a 15-foot birdie putt lipped out at the 18th for a 72 that smacked of glory considering how hard he fought to keep his score together.
"Today was a hard fight," said Woods, who is tied for 18th, seven shots off the lead on four-under and immediately headed to the range for a 40-minute session, going through every club in the bag.
"It was a grind. I didn't hit the ball close, I didn't hit the ball well, but I was just hanging in there, hanging in there and just try not to shoot myself out of the tournament, just keep myself in the tournament.
"I thought something in the red would be great and I just wasn't quite able to do it, but came close."
As Paul Goydos told PGATour.com's Jim McCabe, young players may be sorry, given what he's done in such a short space of time since returning, they ever said they wished they could have played against Woods in his prime:
“Be careful what you wish for,” he said. That’s because, “if he stays healthy, I don’t think these guys have a clue as to what’s coming.”
As for McDowell, he fought back from three-over after eight holes with three birdies in his next four, eventually carding a 72 to share 26th on three-under-par.
DeChambeau shot 66 and Stenson (41) a bogey-free 69 to share the halfway lead on 11-under par, two strokes ahead of Oklahoma's Talor Gooch (26), who followed his 65 with a 70.
"Henrik's played great," said McIlroy "I'm going to have to play very, very good golf on the weekend to catch him."
Hot finish for Meadow
On the Symetra Tour, Stephanie Meadow finished birdie-birdie for a one-over 73 in the season-opening Florida's Natural Charity Classic in Florida to lie five shots behind the clubhouse leaders, Korean's Hyemin Kim and Swede Louise Ridderström.