Commentary

Rory McIlroy roars to hot start at Honda

Updated: March 1, 2012, 10:51 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Home is Northern Ireland, but Rory McIlroy has set up his American base just north of PGA National, site of the Honda Classic. He picked a pretty good place to do so, The Bear's Club, where that venue's namesake was prowling around the other day.

Among the prudent things McIlroy has done in his brief professional career is sought the counsel of Jack Nicklaus, who has been known to impart various morsels of wisdom. So McIlroy was glad to run into Nicklaus.

"He actually didn't recognize me,'' McIlroy said. "He didn't have his glasses on, so he couldn't see who I was. 'Who is that, who is that?' ... It was pretty funny.''

Nicklaus gets a pass for his momentary lapse, but in the golf world, it is difficult to envision anyone not knowing McIlroy these days.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesIf Rory McIlroy can pull off a victory this week at the Honda Classic, he'll overtake Luke Donald as the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world.

The reigning U.S. Open champion continued an excellent stretch of golf Thursday during the first round of the Honda Classic, where he shot 4-under-par 66 in the morning to put his name near the top of the leaderboard again.

Going back to last year, McIlroy has finished in the top 10 of his past 11 tournaments, including a victory at the Hong Kong Open on the European Tour, a runner-up finish in January at the Abu Dhabi Championship and a second-place finish on Sunday at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

If there were any lingering negatives for failing to dispatch Hunter Mahan in Arizona and move to No. 1 in the world, McIlroy didn't let on during a five-birdie, one-bogey effort that left him 2 strokes behind leader Davis Love III.

"I might be a little more focused on what I'm doing,'' said McIlroy, 22, when asked about his recent run of success. "I'm working harder than ever, and I haven't really reaped the rewards of it yet. I've been very consistent, but I haven't won. ... I've played three tournaments this year and had a couple of chances to win. I feel like it's very close.''

McIlroy, who is ranked No. 2 in the world behind Luke Donald, could have taken over the No. 1 spot with a victory at the Match Play Championship.

Having fallen short of that distinction, he has a chance to do it again this week, but only if he wins the tournament. Whether he gets there or not this week, most believe that it is inevitable at some point. McIlroy's swing and skills suggest he could be there for a long time.

"I see in Rory a willingness to do whatever it takes to be a top player,'' said Love, 47, a 20-time PGA Tour winner whose 64 tied the PGA National course record. "He's worked hard. He says and does all the right things. It looks like he's really working out in the gym.

"He's soaking it all in to do all he can to be a great player. That determination, that little bit of something extra that drives you ... I think he's got it.''

McIlroy bulked up in golf's brief offseason and has endured an amazing run dating to last year's Masters, where he held the 54-hole lead but shot a final-round 80 to tumble from contention.

A few months later, he was strolling to an 8-shot victory at the U.S. Open. He soon began dating tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, changed managers and embarked on an amazing, globetrotting, end-of-the-year schedule.

"Maybe for some people, that past year might have been overwhelming with everything that's gone on,'' he said. "But I think if you have a certain type of approach and a certain type of mind, you can handle it. I feel like I'm pretty laid-back and sort of take things in my stride and don't let it affect me too much. So I think I might have been able to handle things a little better than some people would have."

It certainly has not affected his results.

Going back to the PGA Championship, where McIlroy finished 64th after suffering a wrist injury when hitting a tree root during the first round, McIlroy's worst finish is 11th at the Dubai World Championship, where he became ill after winning the week before in Hong Kong.

His run of tournament finishes since the PGA looks like this: 3-3-24-1-11-2-5-2.

"Obviously with all of the talk of No. 1, it would be great to get to that position at some point,'' McIlroy said. "I'm working towards that, and I feel like I'm playing good enough to challenge for it at least. I'm working towards trying to peak my game from April through to August for the four majors and for the big tournaments.

"I want to give myself the best possible chance going into those tournaments, and that's what I'm really working towards.''

And with that, McIlroy was headed off for lunch, a workout and another visit to The Bear's Club, where he figures to warm up in the morning before an afternoon tee time in the second round.

For now, he is renting a home in Jupiter and plans to remain in the United States through the Masters.

"To be honest, it feels like a second home,'' he said.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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