5 Things: McIlroy on top; Scott returns; more

Rory McIlroy plays a shot on the 12th hole during the first round of The Honda Classic at PGA National Resort and Spa.

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PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – A 63 in the afternoon vaulted none other than Rory McIlroy, he of the noted withdrawal a year ago, to the top of The Honda Classic leaderboard during Thursday's first round. At 7 under, McIlroy leads Russell Henley by one shot with a trio of players another shot back tied for third.

Here are 5 Things to know from PGA National.

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1. MCILROY MUSTERS TOP FORM: It’s a very capricious game, this golf. One day you’re spraying the ball around PGA National like some 14-handicapper in the pro-am; one year later, you’re the man atop the mountain again.

Welcome to Rory McIlroy’s world. He won the Honda Classic in 2012. In his title defense last March 1, his game was in such disarray that he walked off the course midway through the second round, failing to finish his ninth hole, and was near tears as he departed the parking lot. Thursday, he was Rory the Conquerer again, in complete control, smashing drives, hitting pinpoint irons, rolling the ball like the second coming of Ben Crenshaw.

It all added up to 63 shots – on his mother Rosie’s birthday, no less – and at 7 under, McIlroy is your first-round leader at the Honda.

“Golf's very . . . it's a very fickle game, because when you're on and you're playing the way I'm playing right now, and feeling very comfortable with everything, you wonder how it ever felt so uncomfortable,” he said. “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.”

McIlroy maintained momentum with a nice par save (11 feet) after his tee shot had nestled into heavy rough at the ninth, then reeled off birdies on Nos. 10-12 (making a 45-footer at 11) to get to 5 under. Two closing birdies, and he was looking like a guy who might be pretty tough to beat this week.

“I knew that Rory had it under control, and eventually, he’d be taking advantages of all the chances he made,” said Adam Scott, who shot 68 playing alongside on a day when competitors were allowed to lift, clean and place balls in the fairway. “It was nice to watch him hit a couple shots and freewheel it, and to remind myself, ‘Don’t hold on so tight. Let a couple go, and just hit it.’ ”

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2. SCOTT'S RETURN: World No. 2 Adam Scott made his first start since his tie for sixth at the Sony Open six weeks ago. Though there was a little rust at times, he was pleased with how he played.

“it felt good to be back out there, to be honest,” he said. “I really enjoyed today.”

Scott endured a rough patch in the middle of the back nine, three-putting for bogey at the 14th before starting the three-hole Bear Trap by dumping his tee shot short right into the water at the tricky, 179-yard 15th. (He would make a nice save for bogey.)

“It’s a tough test. I wasn’t kidding when I said I challenged myself with this (PGA National) being the first tournament back after a layoff. But there was a lot of good stuff. I’m looking for three really good rounds. There’s going to have to be a good one in there to make up some ground somewhere.”

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3. COMEBACK KIDS: Zach Johnson spotted four early shots to Tiger Woods and still beat him soundly. Luke Donald started bogey-double bogey before rallying with six birdies. Both Johnson, who made a quadruple-bogey 8 on his second hole (No. 11), and Donald fired rounds of 3-under 67 in the morning wave.

Johnson had 184 yards over the water to a back-right hole location at 11. He’d prefer to forget what happened next. Johnson pumped two balls in the water and staggered to a snowman.

“We misjudged the wind. I had 7 (-iron) out, went to a 6 and still hit it in the water,” Johnson said. “But I had no excuse other than the fact that I misclubbed twice and probably was overaggressive on the second one. After you hit one in there, you have to get it on the green. That’s just asinine.”

Johnson didn’t let one bad hole ruin his day, though. He rebounded with a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 13 and then strung together three birdies to close out his first nine in 35.

“Making that putt (at 13), getting back to 3 over, was kind of big,” said Johnson, who then toured the second nine in 32. The way he had bounced back impressed Woods.

“Not surprising how tough this guy is,” said Woods, who carded a 71. “He definitely had a Comeback Player of the Day award.”

If so, Donald would have been runner-up. After a bogey at the 10th hole, Donald dunked his second shot at 11 and made double. Donald said he came out of the shot and blamed the result on not trusting the changes he’s made to his swing under pressure. The former World No. 1 – currently ranked 24th – has been working with instructor Chuck Cook since August.

“Fortunately, there were 16 holes in front of me and I played those very well,” Donald said.

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4. NEW LOOPER: Carl Pettersson has struggled mightily over the past year, with the Swede’s last top 10 coming at the limited-field Hyundai Tournament of Champions in 2013. He has missed five cuts in seven starts this season, including his last four consecutive events starting at the Sony Open. He said it was time to shake things up.

Pettersson changed equipment last year at the Frys.com Open. This week at the Honda, he has changed caddies, ending an 11-year partnership with Grant Berry.

“We had no mojo going, and nothing bad happened, it wasn't clicking, so we decided time kind of ran out, ran its course," Pettersson said. "We had a good 11 years, which is rare out here.”

Pettersson turned to Tommy Anderson, who was on the bag for Pettersson when he won the 2005 Chrysler Championship in Tampa and the 2006 Memorial Tournament. (Anderson and Berry sometimes split the duty of toting for Pettersson.)

Anderson had been looping on the Champions Tour for John Cook, who is sidelined with a rib injury.

“I was just lacking confidence, really,” Pettersson said. He opened with a 2-over 72 Thursday. “I putted bad on the West Coast. Today I putted good, (but) I didn't hit it good.”

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5. SLEEPING IN: Will McGirt had a good shot at his first PGA Tour victory at Riviera, but he putted poorly Sunday when a final-round 73 dropped him from first into a tie for sixth place at the Northern Trust Open. After a needed week off, he was back at it at PGA National, opening with a 5-under 65.

McGirt’s week at Riviera was his fifth straight Tour start, and his seventh consecutive week on the road, so he said finally enjoying a week off during the WGC-Accenture Match Play was a great relief. What did he work on the most in his downtime? His slumber.

“Mentally it was huge, because I was pretty well spent,” he said. “Physically, I have never slept as hard as I have the last ten days or so. Been nice to get some sleep.”

– Jeff Babineau and Adam Schupak contributed

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