McIlroy in driver's seat at Honda

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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- The feel-good vibe has been the story of the week for Rory McIlroy. Courteous and contrite, he handled the inevitable one-year-later question about his Honda Classic walk-off with the right dose of humility.

He then backed up his words about being in a different place with his swing and his mind by shooting to the top of the leaderboard.

Now he needs to win the tournament.

After all the drama of the past year, all of the talk about endorsements and club changes and management problems and personal issues, it is time for the best young player in the game to get back to his winning ways.

Of course, McIlroy is not going to put such an all-or-nothing spin on it.

"I think it's important [to] keep putting myself into contention," McIlroy said after a 1-under-par 69 gave him a 2-shot advantage over Russell Henley. "That's the most important thing for me. No matter what happens tomorrow ... but I've been building and building toward getting my game to a level where I feel it should be, and I'm pretty much at that point now.

"So I'm enjoying the process, I'm enjoying the journey of working on my game and trying to get better. So, of course, to get a win tomorrow is important, but I think just to be in this position going into the final group -- it's the second tournament in a row I'm playing in the final group -- so just to keep putting myself in those positions, that's the most important thing to me."

With apologies to the Australian Open, it's been a long wait for a McIlroy victory.

McIlroy won the DP World Championship in Dubai in late 2012 to cap an incredible year that saw him win the money titles on both the European Tour and PGA Tour. His last PGA Tour victory came at the BMW Championship in September of the same year.

A victory here on Sunday all but puts the ups and downs, the criticism, the disappointment of 2013 to rest.

A win would be his seventh on the PGA Tour. McIlroy began to find his form last fall when he went to Asia. He finished second at the Kolon Korean Open, then had a tie for sixth at the WGC-HSBC Champions followed by a tie for fifth at the European Tour's season-ending event in Dubai.

When he beat Adam Scott at the Australian Open in November, it ever-so-slightly helped soothe the hurt of a tumultuous year.

McIlroy finished second -- with a 2-stroke penalty thrown in during the second round -- by 1 shot at the Abu Dhabi Championship in January. He played in the final group with Stephen Gallacher at the Dubai Desert Classic but shot a final-round 74 to finish ninth two weeks later.

Here he's got the likes of Henley, Russell Knox and Jhonattan Vegas chasing him. Not exactly an all-star cast. A few more strokes back are Keegan Bradley, Stuart Appleby and Luke Donald, all established players but likely in need of some help from McIlroy if they are to have a chance.

Tiger Woods managed to get within 7 of McIlroy after shooting a 65 on Saturday, but even if he were to duplicate the 62 of two years ago in the final round, the world No. 1 would need McIlroy to shoot over par to have any chance.

Nope, this is McIlroy's tournament to win, and he's done so the past four times he's held the 54-hole lead in a tournament, dating to the 2011 Masters, where a final-round 80 provided plenty of lessons.

Two years ago, it was a huge deal when McIlroy won the Honda to go to No. 1 in the world for the first time. Now, he has fallen to No. 8, in large part due to the issues that caused him to withdraw here a year ago. Now he's got a chance to win again, a bigger victory than he is letting on.

"It would be nice," he said. "It's not like I haven't won. I felt like it was a good win in Australia at the end of last year. I've given myself a couple of chances to win already this year in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

"It would be nice. It would be my seventh PGA Tour win. That's what it is. That's what it will be. No bigger, no smaller."

Either way, the result promises to be pretty big.

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