Life feels normal again for Rory McIlroy. That’s allowed him to return to a familiar place on the leaderboard.
McIlroy’s 71 Friday gave him a 6-under 138 total at the Wells Fargo Championship, one shot behind leader Scott Gardiner after the morning wave was complete. There’s a mixture of new faces and familiar names on the Wells Fargo leaderboard. Lee Westwood also is 6 under after shooting 68 Friday morning, while Phil Mickelson reached that number after making birdie on his first two holes Friday and moved to 8 under as he made the turn. Lucas Glover, the 2011 Wells Fargo champion who finished fourth at last week’s Zurich Classic, opened with 68-71.
“I’m back to what I’m supposed to do, which is playing golf and trying to win golf tournaments,” McIlroy said. “There was quite a lot of hoopla around me for the first couple of months of the year. But once that settled down, it let me focus on what I needed to do, which is playing golf.”
The leader, Gardiner, is a 37-year-old rookie off the Web.com Tour. Rod Pampling, the 10th alternate at the start of the week, also is 6 under after opening with consecutive 69s, as is Charlotte resident Jason Kokrak, a second-year Tour player out of Xavier who dominated the Charlotte-based eGolf Professional Tour before making it to the big leagues.
McIlroy finished second at the Valero Texas Open, then 25th at the Masters, his last start before coming to Quail Hollow. He spent part of his break in Monaco with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki before returning to Florida to practice with swing coach Michael Bannon. They worked on a more stable hip turn, which would help keep McIlroy’s club from falling behind him in the downswing.
The latter fault led to McIlroy missing shots well right of his target, the type of “big miss” that can be especially penal and lead to the big numbers that ruin most rounds.
“My driving has been good,” McIlroy said. “I felt like at the first few events of the year I had a big miss to the right, and I think I’ve eliminated that, which is a good thing.”
Greens this week have been kept slower and softer because of their poor condition, allowing McIlroy to hit 31 of 36 greens in the first two rounds. He’s also missed just six of 28 fairways. McIlroy has made four bogeys in two rounds. He shot under par Friday in spite of playing the par-5s in 1 over.
“I didn’t play the par-5s very well today, but I think it shows how the rest of my game is that I’m still right there and still able to score,” said McIlroy, who shot a Sunday 62 here in 2010 en route to his first PGA Tour victory and was part of a three-man playoff with D.A. Points and Rickie Fowler last year. Fowler won that playoff for his first victory.
McIlroy’s 17-day break from competition wasn’t enough for him to lose the momentum he’d gained in San Antonio and Augusta. His extended winter break, which lasted from his victory in late November at the DP World Tour Championship until his missed cut at the Abu Dhabi Championship in mid-January, was a different story. McIlroy completed just four competitive rounds in the year’s first nine weeks, which is why he attended the Texas Open, in lieu of a charity trip to Haiti, before this year’s Masters.
“It takes a good few weeks for (swing feels) to really go away,” McIlroy said. “That’s sort of what happened over the Christmas and New Year break.”
McIlroy will play next week’s Players Championship, where he’s missed the cut in all three appearances, followed by the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW Championship May 23-26, the Memorial and then the U.S. Open.
He’s back to playing golf on a regular basis, and back in contention.