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Classic display puts Rory McIlroy back on top

By Phil Casey

Rory McIlroy produced a superb seven-under par 63 to surge ahead at the Honda Classic at Palm Beach Gardens, Florida – to banish memories of last year's mid-round exit.

And his classy effort was a nice way to mark his mum Rosie's birthday – who, along with dad Gerry, was outside the ropes supporting the Holywood star.

"It's great to have mum and dad here and it was nice to finish with a birdie," said a delighted McIlroy.

"My par save at the ninth was also very important," added the 24-year-old after his excellent bogey-free round.

"I played solid golf. The key around here is hitting fairways and hitting greens."

It was all in stark contrast to his surrender midway through his second round 12 months ago when he walked off, later citing dental problems.

American Russell Henley has emerged as a surprise challenger for the $1million top prize, finishing just a shot behind McIlroy.

McIlroy's fellow Ulsterman Graeme McDowell, the 2010 US Open champion, kept himself in contention with a level par 70.

Dungannon's Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open champion, found water on his way to double-bogey sixes at the second and 17th holes of a wayward seven-over par 77 on his return from the chest muscle injury which forced him to retire after 18 holes at Riviera Country Club last month.

But it was McIlroy who once again appeared to be surrounded by any aura of impenetrable self-confidence.

McIlroy is not only back – he's better, longer, stronger and more consistent than before. The evidence was there for all to see through the turn and beyond on the toughest golf course outside of golf's four Majors.

After sinking an 18-foot putt for par on nine, McIlroy played the shot of the day, a breathtaking 195-yard mid-iron, to 10 feet at the next for the first of a fabulous trilogy of birdies.

He drained a 30-footer for three at 11, where he had made six on his last competitive visit 364 days earlier – then fired a six-footer straight into the middle of the cup at 12 to claim a share of the lead on five-under.

Yesterday's flawless display made the fumbling earlier efforts of Tiger Woods to read the same greens appear all the more feeble as he posted a one-over 71 in keeping with his lacklustre opening to year at Torrey Pines and Dubai.

It was just like old times for Dubliner Padraig Harrington.

How heart-warming to see the 42-year-old recover his once-renowned scoring touch as he leapt back to prominence with an impressive two under 68.

Harrington rebounded from an untidy bogey out of a greenside bunker at the second to land a magnificent eagle three at the third.

It was set up with a fine 292-yard drive and glorious 228-yard approach to eight feet.

He then holed a 30-foot birdie putt at the par-three fifth; pulled his tee-shot and approach into the rough on his way to an untidy bogey at nine, then, after a 313-yard drive down 12, hit his approach to 11 feet and adroitly polished off another birdie.

Harrington's mission now is to nurture the green shoots seen during his 68 and painstaking rebuild his confidence.

It left Harrington tied with James Driscoll and Troy Merritt in the clubhouse, three off the early pace set by South Africa's 2011 Honda Classic winner Rory Sabbatini and American William McGirt on a day in which PGA National's usual minder, the Atlantic Ocean wind, took a day off.

Leading positions in the first round of The Honda Classic, PGA National (par 70): 7 under: Rory McIlroy; 6 under: Russell Henley; 5 under: Rory Sabbatini, Jamie Donaldson, William McGirt; 4 under: Brendon De Jonge, Brice Garnett, Tommy Gainey, Derek Ernst; 3 under: Will MacKenzie, Luke Guthrie, Zach Johnson, Hudson Swafford, Luke Donald, Brian Harman, Mark Wilson; 2 under: Troy Merritt, James Driscoll, Padraig Harrington.

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