Comfort level returns for Rory McIlroy


NORTH PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Returning to the scene of perhaps his biggest professional failure, Rory McIlroy continues to say all the right things with the right dose of honesty and humility.

On Thursday, he backed up his words with those Nike clubs that, among other things, caused him fits in 2013.

A year after walking off the course at the Honda Classic and creating a firestorm of controversy, McIlroy shot 63 to take the first-round lead.

"Golf is a very fickle game," said McIlroy, who was one of just four players on the opening day to go around PGA National without a bogey. "When you're playing the way I'm playing right now and feeling very comfortable with everything, you wonder how it ever felt so uncomfortable.

"And then when it feels so uncomfortable, you wonder how it ever felt so comfortable. And it's just a tiny thing that needs to click. It's about understanding what you need to do. You can have a million people tell you how to swing a golf club but once you actually understand what you need to do to see the shots the way you want to, it doesn't really matter.

"Finding that consistency in my swing, obviously it gives me confidence and then when I have the confidence, I'm able to hit the shots out there on the course."

During the second round last year, McIlroy's confidence was shattered. He started on the back nine and made a bogey, two double-bogeys and a triple-bogey before getting to the par-5 18th green -- where he decided to pack it in.

He shook hands with his playing partners and headed to the parking lot, later issuing a statement saying his wisdom teeth were bothering him, ultimately dismissing that story and this week acknowledging that he was in a poor place mentally and with his game.

"A couple of days later I realized a missed cut would have looked better than a withdrawal," he said. "At the time I couldn't cope with it anymore."

His struggles then and through a frustrating season were well-chronicled. Starting 2013 ranked No. 1 in the world, McIlroy missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, was bounced from the first round of the WGC-Match Play Championship, and played just 27 holes here.

Looking back, there were myriad issues.

The expectations that came with being No. 1 in the world and the lucrative Nike endorsement deal; the struggles to adapt to new equipment, as McIlroy switched all 14 clubs in his bag; management issues that are yet to be completely resolved; becoming tabloid fodder with girlfriend and tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, whom he is now engaged to (and who was at PGA National on Thursday).

McIlroy also noted a return to his old fitness coach, Steve McGregor.

"It was a mistake not working with him for seven months and losing his guidance," McIlroy said.

McIlroy, 24, has been trending in this direction for several months, having matched up the proper driver and golf ball last fall, seeing his game turn around during a trip to Asia in which he contended a few times, and then notched a victory at the Australian Open over local hero Adam Scott.

McIlroy began 2014 with a runner-up finish in Abu Dhabi, then finished ninth in Dubai after opening that tournament with a 63. Last week he lost in the second round of the WGC-Match Play Championship.

"I've reached a point now where I'm very comfortable with everything in my game and my swing," he said. "Seeing shots the way I want to see them. When I do that, I feel like the scores are just a byproduct of all the hard work and making good swings."

As for exorcising any demons, or "putting to rest any ghosts," as he was asked after, McIlroy said he didn't approach the round that way.

"It's not something I really thought about out there," he said. "I knew that I was playing well and I just wanted to try and get off to a good start. I've been able to do that the first couple of stroke-play tournaments this year where I've got off to fast starts and got myself into contention, haven't quite converted those in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but wanted to try and do the same here and it was nice to do it, regardless of what happened last year."

Given all the angst associated with the tournament, it is easy to forget that PGA National is also the place of a career highlight. Two years ago, he shot all four rounds in the 60s, held off a final-day charge by Tiger Woods, and won the tournament to go to No. 1 in the world for the first time.

It was the first of five worldwide victories in a phenomenal year that saw him capture the money title on both the PGA and European Tours while also winning his second major championship.

Another week like that will help make last year's walk-off a hazy memory.