By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY, Nov 29 (Reuters) - World number six Rory McIlroy was delighted to finally justify his role as a headline act after tightening up his putting to fire a seven-under-par 65 at the Australian Open on Friday.
A disappointing year has sorely tested McIlroy's natural good humour but he had plenty to smile about after his round of nine birdies and a couple of bogeys saw him join late-starting Adam Scott atop the leaderboard on 10-under.
Despite local favourite Scott's brilliant run of form this year, McIlroy's status as a former world number one and twice major champion ensured his place as a major drawcard.
"Obviously when you come to a tournament where you're one of the headline acts or main attractions, you want to live up to that billing I guess," the Northern Irishman laughed.
"For the most part this year I haven't wherever I went. So it's nice. It's nice to reward the people that invite you down here and look after you so well."
Various theories have been proposed for McIlroy's drop in form this year after a stellar 2012, mostly notably a change in clubs and the distractions of his relationship with Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki.
A messy court case, now resolved, added to his off-course woes but the 24-year-old has maintained a consistent line that it is mostly about regaining the confidence that took him to the top of the world last year.
"I feel like I am very hard on myself when I don't play the way I want to," he said. "I have high expectations of myself and when I don't live up to them it's frustrating and I get easily frustrated with myself.
"It's funny, when you play well your mindset is all about making birdies, because you're most of the time hitting the fairways, hitting the greens and you've got a lot of birdie chances, and when you're not playing your best it seems like you're hanging on for pars and trying to avoid the next bogey.
"The mindsets are so different."
With just one tournament left to play after this weekend, McIlroy is cutting it fine to fulfil world number one Tiger Woods's prediction that he would win before the end of the year.
There is no doubt, though, that he feels his game is coming together again.
On Thursday, McIlroy said he felt he was driving as well as he ever had and in Friday's second round in the Sydney rain he tidied up the putting game that cost him four strokes in his opening 69.
"It's nice when it's like this, when you feel like you can fire pins, you can be aggressive and you can give yourself plenty of chances for birdies," he added.
"This game is so mental as well. To have that mindset of just wanting to get further and further under par is something that only comes with confidence and playing well for a few weeks leading up to this, which I have.
"I think that's why my mindset is how it is at the minute, because I've built that confidence in the last few weeks and I feel like my game's in good shape.
"After not making the tour championship in the States it was all about trying to build momentum for 2014 and that's what I feel like I've started to do." (Editing by Peter Rutherford)