Rory McIlroy rediscovers Open swagger to prove he can never be counted out
The Boy is back in town and boy is he ready to rumble.
Yes, Rory McIlroy, who looked like shooting himself out of the Open Championship after nine holes on Thursday, came from the brink of disaster to elevate himself once again as a genuine contender at Royal Birkdale.
Hallelujah! And let's put our hands up, those of us who dared to suggest McIlroy faced a further period of frustration in this stop-start season.
We did say he would get back to his best, and are delighted he showed something close to the level of performance his fans - and McIlroy himself - expect, given his innate talent.
A Rory on-song is a sight to behold, and the huge galleries who tramped the fairways and climbed the sandhills of this wonderful golf course rose to hail him time and again as he plotted his way to a fighting 68 in very difficult conditions.
At one-under par for the tournament, McIlroy has put himself in position to have a big say in the destination of the Claret Jug for the next 12 months.
What a turnaround. At five-over par for his opening nine on Thursday, McIlroy looked to be in big trouble, but since then he has played 27 holes in six-under par, scoring eight birdies and dropping just two shots in an exemplary performance.
He started the week as a 20/1 shot, drifted out as high as 90/1 during his front nine on Thursday - I know of one Irish punter who dived in and got money on Rory at those odds - and by yesterday evening he was 6/1 to win.
McIlroy did all he could ask of himself after 36 holes and, while he wasn't shouting the odds afterwards, clearly his mojo was back.
"To be in after two days and be under-par for this Championship after the way I started, I'm ecstatic with that," he said.
From the moment McIlroy struck an immaculate three-wood shot off the first tee yesterday, it was clear that the good vibes had not gone AWOL overnight.
The ball arced beautifully through the air, landing at the 372 yard mark, leaving him 69 yards to the flagstick.
Next question: was the short game in the groove in which he had left it on Thursday evening?
Answer: yes sir, indeed sir. He pitched the ball to five feet.
Putting, especially short putts?
That too, was answered in the affirmative. Ball rolls down to hole, falls into the cup. Birdie three. Game on.
The jaunty step was back. McIlroy came within a foot of a birdie on the second, but accepted his two-putt par.
He birdied the third and picked up another shot at the difficult par-four sixth to lie three-under par for the day.
Most important, his pitching, putting, and bunker play helped him make vital par saves on the eighth and ninth, keeping him on track and getting him to the turn in 31 shots.
He had to grind his way to par at the 10th, 11th, and 12th holes, and said: "They're the putts that haven't quite been going in over the past few weeks.
"I hit some quality shots out there. I saw a lot of better iron shots. I saw some really good putts going in.
"So, yeah, there was a lot of quality out there and I was happy to see that. Just have to try to keep that going for the next two days," said McIlroy.
Inevitably, there were setbacks, but not too damaging.
He dropped shots at the 13th where he was out of position off the tee, and at the par-five 15th, he was bunkered off his second shot.
Consolation came with a four at the long 17th, where he pitched it close from the back of the green and holed the putt.