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“Yes, weekend golf!” So Rory McIlroy bellowed, arms aloft, as he left the recorder’s hut here at the Wells Fargo Championship and headed to speak to the media.
Of course, this was mock celebration on behalf of the four-time major winner, but beneath the self-deprecation there was clearly relief that he will be playing competitively on a Saturday for the first time in two months.
If that sounds incredible for someone of McIlroy’s stature, then it should be noted this is only his fourth event since finishing 10th at Bay Hill at the start of March. No doubt the ensuing missed cuts at The Players and The Masters - as well as the group-stage exit at the WGC Match Play - were worrisome and did cause him to slip to 15th in the world, his lowliest ranking in 11 years. But Pete Cowen, his new swing coach, has assured him they are nowhere near panic stations.
This five-under 66 at his beloved Quail Hollow proved as much. Despite two late three-putts, McIlroy hurtled up from a tie for 78th, eight off the lead and outside the cut-line, to four-under and into a tie for fifth, just two behind the halfway pacesetters, England's Matt Wallace (67) and a pair of Americans in former US Open champion Gary Woodland (69l and Patrick Rodgers (68).
If McIlroy can fix his form off the tee, the quality of his iron play suggests a first win in 19 months could be just around the dogleg. “I worked hard after Augusta,” he said. “Yeah I took a week off, which I needed, but then I put my head down and felt better about everything coming in here.”
Well, almost everything. He is still battling with the fact that contrary to a lifetime of a “high slinging draw” with the driver, he is now fading it. “With these modern drivers, it's harder to turn them over, so I've had to adjust,” he explained. “I just have to commit to going down the left side and trust it's going to come back.”
McIlroy is struggling with that notion, the headcase in point coming on his fifth hole of the morning [the 14th] when he hit an alarming block. “Yep that was me trying to hit draw with driver, but I came out of it,” he said. “I thought it was going out of bounds, but it stopped short and it was a bonus to hit my approach stiff. That was the catalyst for going on that nice little run.”
McIlroy impressed many on Wednesday when emphatically making the case against the Super Golf League, the proposed breakaway circuit that has rocked the golf world as some of the sport’s big names consider whether to accept payments of $30m and risk lifetime bans from the Tours and perhaps even the majors and Ryder Cup.
Yet the 32-year-old from Belfast was born to earn admiration inside the ropes and the sizeable crowds here were thrilled to see their favourite running through the highlight reels. This was where he won his first PGA Tour title as a 20-year-old, scorching through the final two rounds in 66-62 and where he lost a play-off two years later.
“It makes it easier that I’m here, somewhere that I am very comfortable," he said. “Having crowds back in general is good, but especially here in Charlotte. I feed off that. I've only hit nine fairways in the opening two rounds, but I m really happy with my iron play.”
McIlroy played with his father, Gerry, last week in Seminole, the revered Florida layout which this weekend hosts the Walker Cup, with GB & I looking for their first win in the US in 20 years and just their third in the 99-year history of the match. Both teams have been hit by a gastro bug, with fears it could be called off. McIlroy prays that is not the case.