Commentary

Despite chaos, Rory McIlroy leads

Updated: May 30, 2014, 3:03 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

DUBLIN, Ohio -- For those so inclined, there is a simple, easy narrative to explain Rory McIlroy's inspired golf of late: It was spurred by his very public breakup with fiancée Caroline Wozniacki.

And if you believe that line of thinking, there ought to be a bunch of nervous wives, girlfriends and significant others across golf's landscape. Ruthless, single-minded golfers, of course, are looking for any edge.

But McIlory concurs with a far less acrimonious explanation and a tidy golf assessment: "This was coming."

McIlroy followed his victory Sunday in England with a 9-under-par 63 at Muirfield Village Golf Club to take a 3-stroke advantage after Round 1 of the Memorial Tournament.

He made two eagles and seven birdies, overcoming a double-bogey on the 14th hole, to take the lead over Bubba Watson, Paul Casey and Chris Kirk -- while battling a bothersome left knee.

All of this has occurred in the eight days that have passed since McIlroy's stunning announcement that he had ended his engagement.

Coincidence?

"I don't think it's anything more than just being confident with my game," McIlroy said. "I was expecting this to happen. I've been playing well. I've been posting good numbers, good rounds. And I knew my game was close.

"And honestly, I don't think it's anything to do with what's happening off the golf course. It's just I've been trending in the right direction, and it's starting to all come together."

Still, a couple of lackluster weeks wouldn't have been a surprise given the difficulties in his personal life.

And all you need to do is look back to a tumultuous 2013 season that saw him start the year ranked No. 1 in the world but suffer all manner of troubles on the course.

A lucrative endorsement deal, a change in equipment, the constant questions about his relationship with the Danish tennis star, a split with his management company (and subsequent lawsuits) ... it added up to a winless season on both the PGA Tour and European Tour.

And yet here is McIlroy, having just captured the BMW PGA Championship -- the European Tour's flagship event -- and now leading one of the most prestigious tournaments on the PGA Tour.

"Just really happy with my game, happy with how I played, and just trying to keep this going for the rest of the week," he said.

To add just one more issue, McIlroy tweaked his left knee on his second shot at the seventh hole. He believes it had something to do with his spikes -- he wears metal ones -- getting caught in the ground. "The inside of it is sore, a little swollen," he said.

McIlroy birdied the seventh hole and had a noticeable limp on Nos. 8 and 9 as he made another birdie to turn in 32 strokes. A birdie at the 10th followed by an eagle at the 11th made that pain seem less obvious, although McIlroy was due to get treatment Thursday night.

"He played lovely," said No. 1-ranked Adam Scott, who shot 69 alongside McIlroy and Jason Day (72). "Obviously he's in good form. He even made an error and shot 9 under. There's good scores out there if you're on."

McIlroy was on. He hit 13 of 18 greens and took just 22 putts. He was better than the course average by 9.2 shots. And this was the same venue where he opened with a 78 a year ago and barely made the cut.

After his victory on Sunday, McIlroy went home to Northern Ireland to visit his mom, then traveled to the United States on Tuesday, getting in early practice that same day. He has seemingly lost little in his transition from Europe to America.

"After a win, you're always fearful of a letdown," he said. "But I think the confidence that a win gives you ... I'm not saying the game feels easy, but you're on a roll where you have momentum."

The only negative Thursday was the 14th hole, where his approach landed in a back bunker and he was plugged on a downslope. He had to aim away from the flag, and McIlroy purposely left the shot at a farther point in the bunker.

He then blasted out, the ball speeding across the green and held up from going into a hazard by the rough. He took 2 shots to get in the hole from there, making a double-bogey 6.

"I was honestly just thinking about how sore my knee was going to be after I hit my tee shot on 15 really hard," he said.

He bounced back with an eagle there on the par-5, in keeping with how he has rebounded quite nicely on the golf course.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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