Young stars Bradley, McIlroy start fast at Honda

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland chips onto the 10th green during the first round of the Honda Classic.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland chips onto the 10th green during the first round of the Honda Classic.

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9:58:18 PM ET. 04/24/2014




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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Keegan Bradley was walking down the par-4 sixth hole at PGA National’s Champion Course, chewing on a sandwich and sipping from his water bottle. He stopped suddenly. The reason? To let Rory McIlroy make up the 15-yard gap between them. The two chatted as they walked down the fairway, looking more like compatriots than potential Ryder Cup competitors.

The two twentysomething major champions played together in Thursday’s first round of the Honda Classic, their first pairing since meeting at last year’s Grand Slam of Golf. Their budding friendship was on display in one of the day’s premier (non-Tiger) pairings. The camaraderie was overshadowed by their skill, though. McIlroy, who has a mediocre record in three starts here, shot 66 and was two shots off Davis Love III’s lead. Bradley shot 67.

“It was a nice group, three pretty young guys, hitting the ball a long way and trying to make as many birdies as possible,” McIlroy said.

Kyle Stanley, one of the stars of the recent West Coast Swing, struggled a 75. He was the 36-hole leader at last year’s Honda before finishing 24th.

McIlroy and Bradley hit it off immediately when they met in Bermuda, Bradley said, and have plans to spend more time together. They’re both members at The Bear’s Club in nearby Jupiter, and have practice games lined up for their mutual off weeks. Bradley has lived in South Florida for a couple years, while McIlroy, who has shown interest in moving to the area, is renting property in Jupiter.

“I love playing with Rory for a lot of reasons. I’m very competitive with Rory, but also I really like the kid,” said Bradley, all of 25 years old. “He brings out the best in me, and I hope I do the same for him.”

McIlroy, at 22, is on the verge of becoming the world’s No. 1 player. He is coming off a runner-up finish at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship and has finished no worse than 11th in his past 10 official starts, including nine top-5 showings. A victory this week would make him the world’s No. 1 player for the first time in his career. His coronation seems imminent, considering his strong recent form and No. 1-ranked Luke Donald’s slow start to 2012.

McIlroy attributes his improved play to better focus.

“I feel like I’m just a better golfer,” he said. “Not that I never took it seriously, but I feel like I’ve got a few targets in my head, and I’m sort of striving to get to those.”

Bradley is still getting accustomed to the attention that comes from his 2011 PGA Championship victory. This time last year, he was a nondescript rookie off the Nationwide Tour who missed the Honda cut with rounds of 76-71.

“That feels like a lifetime ago,” Bradley said.

We’ve seen many players struggle in the wake of a surprise major victory. Bradley has had no such trouble. He has finished no worse than 22nd in six 2012 starts, losing a three-way playoff at the recent Northern Trust Open. Phil Mickelson’s mentorship has helped ease the transition to celebrity. The fruits of that relationship showed Thursday, as Bradley shone alongside one of the game’s budding stars.

Not that Bradley was concerned Thursday with a feel-good story involving his new friend and rival, McIlroy.

“I want to beat him just like he wants to beat me,” Bradley said.

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