PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- While Rosie McIlroy was in town Thursday for her 63rd birthday, it was her 24-year-old son Rory who had reason to celebrate.
A year ago, he quit the Honda Classic in the middle of the second round. Thursday, he returned and had his best round ever at PGA National, firing a 7-under-par 63 to take a one-stroke lead over little-known Russell Henley.
Both of McIlroy's parents - visiting from Northern Ireland - were in the gallery for his first bogey-free round at the Honda. So was his fiancee, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who got a peck on the cheek as McIlroy walked off No. 18 after sinking a 4-foot putt for his seventh birdie of the day.
One day after saying he has found contentment in his life since moving to Palm Beach Gardens in 2012 and getting through a forgettable 2013 season on tour, McIlroy underscored those sentiments.
"I'm in a great place," he said. "I couldn't be happier. We've got a home here in Palm Beach. Personal life is great. And if everything is settled off the course, then it helps me perform better on it."
While the Honda field is the strongest in any tour event so far this year, many of the big names struggled. Tiger Woods didn't make a putt longer than 6 feet and wound up at 71, one shot better than Phil Mickelson.
World No. 2 Adam Scott hit one of the 17 tee shots that wound up in the water on No. 15 but birdied No. 18 to get to 2-under 68.
World No. 3 Henrik Stenson was at 73 and defending champion Michael Thompson, who had a triple-bogey 7 at the most difficult hole of the day, No. 6, was at 74.
The best stretch of holes for McIlroy - who is playing the Honda for the sixth time - came when he had birdies on Nos. 10, 11 and 12. But he felt his best hole might have been No. 9, where he drove into the right rough, came up short of the green on his second shot, chipped to 11 feet and sank the par-saving putt.
"That really kept my momentum going into the back nine," he said.
McIlroy last year walked off the course on the ninth hole of his second round on his way to what he estimated Wednesday would have been about a 90. He failed to win a PGA Tour event in 2013 after changing equipment and managers; he had won four times including the PGA Championship in 2012.
The first of those four wins came at the Honda, where he never went lower than 66. Thursday's round was three shots better.
"I was very consistent," he said of the 2012 victory that propelled him to No. 1 in the world. "I would shoot 4-under, another 4-under and maybe a 5-under. I feel like I'm playing well enough to do something like that again.
"I was in control of my ball all day. I didn't miss many fairways; I didn't miss many greens. Gave myself plenty of chances for birdies and I was able to take a few."
For a time it didn't appear that McIlroy would be the story of the afternoon round. The spotlight was on Henley, who birdied his first four holes and five of his first six.
Henley, who won his PGA Tour debut as a rookie in Hawaii last season but hadn't repeated the feat in 32 events since, started hot with his putter, rolling in an 18-footer on his first hole and a 13-footer on his fourth.
"Getting off to a good start here is pretty important," said Henley, whose opening 68 last year set him up for a 13th-place finish. "Every hole is a challenge. I got off to a great start by hitting fairways and greens."
Henley hit his tee shot at No. 15 - his sixth hole - a foot from the cup for a tap-in birdie. While he made 11 pars and one birdie in the remaining 12 holes, his round never got boring, as evidenced by the par-5 third hole: He hit his second shot into the water, took off his socks and shoes and flipped a wedge up onto the green for a two-putt par.
"I felt like I could get it in the bunker at least, and that would be better than taking a drop on the hill," he said. "I just tried to stay aggressive and hit it hard and see if it came out, and it came out higher and softer than I could ever imagine."
The wind remained down and the rain that was predicted never came, making for perfect scoring conditions. While showers are in the forecast for Friday morning, the rest of the weekend looks bright and sunny - just like McIlroy's disposition.
"Golf's a fickle game," he said. "When you're on, and you're playing the way I am right now, and feeling very comfortable with everything, you wonder how it ever felt so uncomfortable."