A best-of-the-tournament, bogey-free 65 and a pat on the back from Donald Trump; Rory McIlroy has indeed come a long way this week. "He's tough," barked the Don, placing himself neatly at the heart of the story. McIlroy has not felt the Trump embrace all week. The moment he sprinkles some stardust around the Cadillac Championship, up pops the master scene stealer to bask in the associated glow. "Good job," said Trump. "You're hitting it well."
McIlroy is second in the betting exchanges for the Masters behind you know who. That tells you how much his game has improved since Thursday, never mind the size of the canyon crossed since last week. On a day when the wind made scoring notionally harder, McIlroy peppered the pins throughout the front nine, starting with an eagle courtesy of a 7-iron approach described as one of his best, and claiming a birdie at the fifth.
McIlroy climbed from a tie for 50th at the end of the first day to the top 10 when he signed for his card and a 10-under-par total. Two birdies in the closing three holes and a 12-foot par putt at the last embellished a round that he said he never saw coming when he pitched up at Doral in crisis.
"I was pretty down about my game coming into the week but a few days like this does my confidence the world of good," McIlroy said. "I thought a day like today was a long way away. That's one of my problems. When things are bad I always think things are further away than they are. I just have to let things happen and know that if I put in the hard work the results will come."
McIlroy's strikes against par were balanced by persistent bogeys on the opening three days, but there was none of that vulnerability yesterday. This was McIlroy as you could not have imagined during the Honda nadir when he walked off the course mid-round, an episode he described as the lowest point in his career. With his confidence returning rapidly, McIlroy was swinging with authority and clearly enjoying the feeling of stress free golf.
The contrast with his playing partner George Coetzee, a young South African who also hits it a mile and goes for everything, demonstrated how fickle a game this can be. Coetzee teed it up a shot better off than McIlroy on four under par. Three holes into the round he was five down, having three-putted twice and sent a wedge into the water at the third from the middle of the fairway. An inveterate smoker, Coetzee never had greater need of a Marlboro as he walked to the fourth tee.
This tournament could hardly have fallen better for sponsors Cadillac. The major themes have been dominated by the game's two biggest names, one recovering from crisis, the other, Tiger Woods, re-establishing his credentials as the greatest force in the game. After three rounds featuring a record 24 birdies, Woods reported that he had never hit the ball as far and that the aim was to be better than he has ever been. His performance this week has reinforced the feeling that Woods is ready to embellish his CV with more majors, five years after claiming his 14th.
South Florida lost the sunshine yesterday and the wind picked up. Woods was through the first in two, leaving himself a difficult downhill chip out of clawing Bermuda grass. It cost him his birdie chance. At least as impressive as his ball-striking has been the return of the superior attitude that does not permit negativity. He did not rue the missed opportunity, he looked forward to the next.
His manipulation of a 3-wood is smoothing to behold, sending his ball past the drives of most. Woods arrowed his ball to the left of the second fairway, fired his approach to 15 feet on a green quicker than a porcelain tile and drained the putt. Take that. The greater the demand, the higher Woods' playing partner, Graeme McDowell, climbs to meet it. The plan was to focus on his own ball and hang on if Woods hit the turbo. Like the great counter- puncher he is, McDowell led with a couple of stiff jabs of his own, starting his round birdie, birdie.
A birdie at the fourth re-established the four-shot lead with which Woods started the day. A McDowell bogey at the fifth extended it to five. All donations gratefully accepted, not that Woods needed any.
Meanwhile on the back nine, McIlroy began the run for home with two more birdies. The cameras had lost interest by then, but they will not be gone long. McIlroy is scheduled to appear just once more before the Masters, at the Shell Houston Open in three weeks. So thrilled is he with the upturn in form he has elected not to add an extra tournament to his schedule before then.
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