Virtual sport has been all the rage during the coronavirus shutdown and now Rory McIlroy says his impressive second round at the Charles Schwab Challenge was proof that the esport world can help out on the course.
The world number one carded a seven under par 63 on Friday morning at Colonial CC to climb to nine under par for the week.
After shooting the lowest round of the morning session, McIlroy went into the weekend just two off Harold Varner III’s lead.
There wasn't such positive news, however, for Graeme McDowell, whose level par 70 left him one over par for the week and agonisingly missing out on the cut by a single shot after makeable putts, four inside ten feet, slid by on the back nine.
McIlroy's 63 was a huge improvement on Thursday’s two under par finish. McIlroy hit 15 greens on both days but gave himself better birdie opportunities in round two and made it count with the putter, holing out for six birdies and an eagle over the course of his round.
Afterwards, he credited his improvement to a practice session on Thursday evening on a golfing simulator.
“The rental home we're staying in this week has a simulator in the basement,” he explained. “I actually hit a few balls in there last night, and that helped.
“It's hot here; you don't want to take too much energy out of yourself. But the fact that where we're staying has a simulator and you can hit some shots, get some numbers, I just needed to sort of dial them in a little bit.
“I did that last night, and it seemed to help this morning.”
Starting on the 10th, McIlroy was already on he course when the tournament paused for a minute's silence at 8.46am to mark the length of time - eight minutes and 46 seconds - that a police officer's knee was held on George Floyd's neck before the 46 year-old died in Minneapolis last month.
Around the emotional pause in play, McIlroy hit all of his opening eight greens and managed to roll in birdie putts at the par three 13th and par four 14th and 17th holes.
A rare lapse of the 18th tee saw McIlroy’s ball career right over a cart path but, managing to squeeze his approach into the front bunker, he made an impressive up and down for his only scrambling par of the day.
If that maintained his momentum, he took full advantage with a perfectly played eagle three at the first, his 10th hole of the day, and even bacedk that up with a birdie at the par four 11th.
At that stage McIlroy was six under for his previous eight holes and soon a timely present would arrive from then tournament leader Jordan Spieth, playing in the group ahead.
The American had been six under for the day, 11 under for the week but dropped three shots in two holes to leave McIlroy just a shot off the top.
Joint overnight leader Harold Varner III then produced a stunning finish to his round, with five birdies in his final six holes, to set the clubhouse lead at -11.
McIlroy duly responded with two magnificent approach shots on the sixth and seventh – evidence of his virtual practice session – to set up back to back tap in birdies and climb within a shot.
Round 2 highlights💣💥🎯🔥 pic.twitter.com/dpcMxgVXwC— Rory McIlroy Tracker (@RoryTrackerPGA) June 12, 2020
His last hole of the day was an uncharacteristic struggle. An iron off the tee found the right rough and he could only progress his second to 80 yards short of the green.
Worse was to follow when his approach was totally miscued and a lengthy first putt was sent eight feet past. Suddenly it seemed a clutch putt to save bogey and ensure all momentum wasn’t lost heading into the weekend.
Crucially, the ball dropped to McIlroy got in at nine under for the week.
“I feel like I made some improvements today and learnt a few things. So no, I’m not surprised,” he said of his positive round.
“I felt like I built my score really well. I took advantage of some of the easier holes and played conservatively on some of the tougher ones, especially three, four and five, the horrible horseshoe.
“I made three of my pars there and moved on and then birdied the next two holes.
“Just smart, played to my strengths, put it in play and gave myself plenty of chances. I felt pretty comfortable out there, and hopefully I can do the exact same thing over the next two days.
“The leaderboard is a who's-who of golf right now. I'm just happy to be in the mix.”
Spieth bounced back from his sticky patch with two more birdies to finish at ten under par for the tournament.
Colin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele are tied with McIlroy one shot further back.
McIlroy’s playing partners didn’t fare quite as well, especially world number two Jon Rahm, who was facing a missed cut after a one over par 71 left him level par for the week. Brooks Koepka repeated his first round 68 to reach four under par.
Open Champion Shane Lowry finished six shots outside the cut on four over while Thursday's joint overnight leader Justin Rose could only card a one under 69 to reach eight under for the week.