NORTON, Mass. -- There have been three phases to Rory McIlroy's 2012 season. In the first portion, the 23-year-old Northern Irishman won the Honda Classic in March and got to No. 1 in the world. Reaching that milestone started a victory lap that took a detour with a tie for 40th at the Masters.
Then, in the second phase, he missed four out of five cuts, including one at the U.S. Open, where he was the defending champion. His tie for 60th at the Open Championship was another glaring symbol of a very mediocre stretch of golf.
But then came a tie for fifth at the WGC-Bridgestone, an impressive 8-shot win at the PGA Championship and a return to No. 1 in the world.
That's the phase we find McIlroy in this week at the Deutsche Bank Championship after his second straight 6-under-par 65 gave him the 36-hole lead by a shot over Louis Oosthuizen. Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore, who both shot 68 on Saturday, trail by 2 heading into Sunday's third round.
When McIlroy is playing well, he can make the game look easy. On Saturday, he hit 11 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens on the TPC Boston course. Starting his second round at the 10th hole, he had three birdies and an eagle for a back-nine 30.
Then, on the front side, he offset two bogeys with three birdies.
"I got off to a nice start and sort of just kept the momentum going," said McIlroy, who is 12 under for the tournament. "I felt like I drove the ball a bit better today and hit more fairways, which gave me some more opportunities to make birdies, and I was putting well enough to take a few of those."
McIlroy blamed his putter and the inconsistent greens at Bethpage Black for his disappointing tie for 24th last week at The Barclays, the first leg of the FedEx Cup playoffs. After his round Saturday, however, he was pleased with the flatstick and the pure greens at TPC Boston.
"I just found it very difficult on the greens last week, and this week the surfaces are much better," McIlroy said, "and it gives you a little more confidence that you can roll your putts at the hole a bit more."
These two very good rounds in Boston place him in a great position heading into the final 36 holes of the tournament. Player of the year and the FedEx Cup playoff title are clearly in his sights. Everything we thought he could accomplish at the beginning of the year could finally come to fruition.
Yet McIlroy still needs a bit more time before we start calling him the heir apparent to Woods. Many people, including myself, have rushed to judgment on this kid in just his sixth year as a pro.
Maybe the best way to gauge his progress is to watch how often he puts himself in contention. At his best, Woods was in the hunt nearly every time he played, unlike one of his rivals, Phil Mickelson, who would have great spurts of success followed by some indifferent play.
In the first phase of McIlroy's year, with the exception of the Masters, he didn't finish worse than fifth in six worldwide events. Then he had a drought when his game looked very inconsistent. Now, beginning at the Bridgestone, he appears to have regained the consistency that marked the first third of his season.
I'm sure McIlroy would prefer being in contention every week over having the occasional disappearing act. He's not always going to win, but, with his game, he should never be far off the leaderboard. Even through his putting struggles and a few swing maintenance issues, he is so much better than most other tour players.
McIlroy hasn't quite reached that level of consistency in his game, but he's not far off.
These FedEx Cup playoffs and the Ryder Cup give us, for the first time, the opportunity to see much of his game up close. His blemishes, and there aren't many, will be in full view for the next several weeks.
For the next two days at TPC Boston, he could take hold of these playoffs. A win here also would signify that his bout of bad play earlier this year was just a momentary diversion from what will be a long reign at the top of the game.