In the first round of the Honda Classic on Thursday, Rory McIlroy conquered the golf course that left him walking away, head down, with an unfinished and humiliating round a year ago.
McIlroy ignored those memories as he shot a 7-under-par 63 to take the first-round lead by a stroke over Russell Henley in the Honda tournament at PGA National Resort & Spa.
“Golf’s a very fickle game,” said McIlroy, who struggled through most of last season. “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.”
In addition, PGA National has put McIlroy through an emotional wringer over the years.
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Two years ago in the Honda, McIlroy won the tournament at age 22 and moved into the world’s No. 1 ranking. Complete elation.
Then, a year ago at the Honda, McIlroy blamed a toothache as he abruptly walked off the course when he was 7-over-par through eight holes of the second round. Complete dejection.
Failing to complete that round is something he has apologized for repeatedly and said will never happen again.
That said, he refuses to dwell on the past, and he said that includes both the high point two years ago and the low point last year.
McIlroy knows that focus, not emotions, usually wins in golf.
“It’s not like I was out there thinking about what had happened last year, or what had happened the year before that when I won,” he said of Thursday’s round. “It’s a new tournament this year.
‘It’s on a tough golf course. I need to focus all my energy and thoughts into playing these 18 holes.”
On this year’s Honda leaderboard after the first round, there is some elbow shoving going on at the top.
Henley, starting on the back nine, parlayed four consecutive pars to start his round and five in the first six holes to shoot a 30 for his first nine holes. His second nine wasn’t nearly as spectacular, but it was bogey-free with one birdie for a 34.
Immediately after he finished, Henley went to the range.
“You can never practice too much when you’re playing out here,” he said. “Everybody’s so good.”
After McIlroy and Henley, there were three players — Rory Sabbatini, William McGirt and Jamie Donaldson — tied at 5-under 65. And after that, there were five tied at 66, three strokes back of McIlroy.
But it was McIlroy’s round everybody was talking about.
How good was it?
His 63 was three strokes better than any of the four rounds he shot when he won two years ago.
Some of the big names in this year’s tournament had a not-so-big day Thursday.
With seven of the world’s top-10 players competing, only one, No. 8 McIlroy, was among the top 10 first-day leaders.
That included two of golf’s best, and two of golf’s most recognizable — No. 1 Tiger Woods and No. 5 Phil Mickelson.
Woods, starting on the 10th tee, parred the first eight holes before making a birdie to go 1-under. Then playing the front nine, he had a double-bogey on No. 2, followed by bogeys on No. 5 and No. 8. Birdies on the third and ninth allowed him to shoot a 1-over 71.
“I hit it good starting out,” Woods said. “Hit it kind of scrappy in the middle and then hit it good at the end.”
He added he had difficulty with the greens.
“They were as slippery as can be last year, where now they are sticky and slower,” Woods said. “The grain is pretty strong out there.”
His effort didn’t put Woods out of the tournament, but it also didn’t put him on an easy path to winning it.
Mickelson finished one stroke ahead of Woods at even-par 70.
“It’s a good golf course, a good test,” Mickelson said.
“I did some things really well,” but then quickly added, “and I did some things poorly.”