PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Rory McIlroy recovered from a sloppy start Friday with six birdies in a 10-hole stretch for a 4-under 66 to build a three-shot lead among early starters at the Honda Classic.
A growing gallery in warm sunshine at PGA National saw a familiar game — the McIlroy who won the Honda Classic two years ago to reach No. 1 in the world for the first time, not the guy who walked off the course last year at the height of his frustrations.
Swinging freely and putting beautifully, McIlroy hit his stride on his back nine with four birdies in five holes, including the par-5 No. 3 when he smashed a drive some 35 yards behind Adam Scott and had only a 6-iron into the green on the 539-yard hole.
At 11-under 129, he was three shots clear of Russell Henley, who had a 69. Lee Westwood (65) and Russell Knox (63) were four shots behind.
Phil Mickelson, playing PGA National for the first since he was an amateur, had a short week. He made only four birdies over two rounds, went bunker-to-bunker around the 16th green for double bogey and had a 71. Mickelson was virtually certain to miss the cut.
Tiger Woods was among the late starters. He began his round at 1 over, outside the cut line and 12 shots behind McIlroy.
"This year is obviously a lot different," McIlroy said. "Got off to a good start. I'm confident. I'm playing well. This is the second straight tournament I've opened with a 63, so if I can keep building on these good starts, then hopefully I can start converting."
After a 63 in Dubai, he said he was pressing too much in the final round and wound up in a tie for ninth.
Friday was another step in the right direction, despite two errant tee shots on the 11th and 12th holes that led to bogeys. His round changed with a tee shot into 6 feet on the 16th hole for a birdie, and then a 12-foot birdie on the 18th to wrap up his front nine and earn back the two shots he had dropped.
After a 45-foot birdie attempt on the second hole rimmed all the way around and out of the cup, Boy Wonder took off. He two-putted the par-5 third. He hit a wedge into 4 feet on the next hole. He rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt down the hill at the par-5 fifth. Then, after a tough par save on the sixth, he sank another 30-foot birdie putt that McIlroy made look routine.
The gallery is kept 100 yards from the green, so the only applause came from a few marshals. It sounded like a tap-in for par. McIlroy reacted that way, too.
"Watching Rory play is amazing when he's swinging like this," Scott said after his own great recovery.
The Masters champ put shots in the water on the 16th and 17th holes, both times making double bogey, and it looked as though his return to golf after a six-week break would be a short one. But the Australian ran off four birdies on the front nine for a 70.
The soft conditions didn't hurt after rain earlier in the week. McIlroy won the U.S. Open at Congressional by eight shots in 2011 on such course conditions.
Henley won as rookie at the Sony Open, but he has had only two top 10s since then, and he has failed to crack the top 25 this season.
Mickelson was pleased with how he was driving the ball, but couldn't figure out why he didn't make many birdies. The question for Mickelson was whether to fly home to San Diego for four days before the Cadillac Championship at Doral, or stick to his plan of playing the pro-member tournament at Seminole on Monday.
The rest of the field is more concerned with catching McIlroy.
Scott saw it in Australia late last year when McIlroy beat him on the last hole for his only win of 2013. McIlroy has been on an upward swing ever since, with chances to win on Sunday in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
McIlroy practiced with putting coach Dave Stockton last week in Arizona, the first time they had worked together in nearly three months. They made a few minor changes, and McIlroy feels more comfortable on the greens.
It shows in the statistics — 49 putts through 36 holes.
"That's probably the lowest putting total after 36 I've probably had, maybe in my career," he said. "So it's obviously going in the right direction."