Rory McIlroy strode into the Arnold Palmer Invitational with rather more in his sights than merely making the cut. But, in the event, he was happy to qualify for another two rounds which could prove so crucial in his Masters build-up.
The last thing the Ulsterman needed was to make a premature departure from the Orlando PGA Tour tournament, having already conceded so much ground to his rivals because of the rib injury he sustained in his first start of the year in January, which enforced a two-month absence from competition.
Yet after an opening two-over 74, and then two bogeys in his first two holes at Bay Hill Country Club yesterday, he was staring down the barrel.
McIlroy duly recovered to shoot a one-under 71 to make the weekend on one over, but in true McIlroy style the Rory resurrection was anything but straightforward. However, he had expected so much more after finishing seventh in his comeback event at the World Golf Championship in Mexico two weeks ago.
“It’s been a bit of a struggle, which I didn’t really anticipate coming in here,” McIlroy said. “I felt I was hitting the ball well in practice, putting it good, but I just haven’t really been able to piece it together. So, at least I’m here for the weekend and got two more days to try to improve on what I’ve done so far. It was fairly adventurous out there.”
Indeed, it was. He went five, five on opening par-fours and at four over he was, as the locker-room vernacular has it, “queuing at the Delta ticket counter”. But then, courtesy of a birdie on the par-five 12th (his third, having started on the 10th) and then an 18-footer for an eagle on the par-five 16th, he was peering upwards rather than downwards.
There followed a chunk into the water on the 17th and the world No 3 was up against it again. McIlroy responded in superbly professional style, birdied the par-four 18th, when playing a marvellous approach into nine feet, and then going through his second nine in one-under.
After struggling with his swing in his mediocre first round, he had departed for the range, saying: “My upper body’s just sort of outracing the club and I’m leaving the club face open and I just need to sort of square it.”
A few hours evidently fixed the worst of it. “I hit it a little better today and gave myself a few more looks,” McIlroy said. “So, yeah, it’s still not quite where I want it, but at least it’s been an improvement.”
McIlroy realises time is against him as this is his last strokeplay event before Augusta. He is playing in next week’s WGC Matchplay in Austin, but taking on the person rather than the card is a different test altogether.
The odds are plainly against him challenging for the Bay Hill title, which will be so resonant following Palmer’s death last September. When McIlroy left the course, he was 11 shots behind the American Charley Hoffman, with the English 22-year-old Matt Fitzpatrick in second on eight under after a 69.