Charles Schwab Challenge
June 12, 2020

Rory McIlroy (63) is quickly back to his usual contending-in-every-tournament self

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Darren Carroll for Golf Digest

This week marks the beginning of a new normal on the PGA Tour, but Friday brought a rather familiar sight: Rory McIlroy near the top of the leader board.

After opening the Charles Schwab Challenge a day earlier with an unremarkable round of 68, the World No. 1 made six birdies, an eagle and a lone bogey at his last hole for a seven-under 63. At nine under for the tournament, McIlroy will head to the weekend at Colonial Country Club very much in the thick of things in the first tour event since March.

“Just smart, played to my strengths, put it in play and gave myself plenty of chances,” McIlroy said. “I felt pretty comfortable out there, and hopefully I can do the exact same thing over the next two days.”

Being in contention has been the norm for McIlroy over the last 18 months. McIlroy’s worst finish in six starts on the PGA Tour during the 2019-’20 season, which already includes a victory at the WGC-HSBC Champions, is a tie for fifth. He entered the COVID-19 hiatus as the world’s best player, and if Friday is any indication, he looks to have emerged from the COVID-19 hiatus as the world’s best player.

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Friday’s round was evidence that when he is firing, there is no course McIlroy cannot devour. On paper, Colonial would not be a great fit—it’s tight off the tee and forces players with McIlroy’s length to avoid hitting driver on several holes, neutralizing arguably his greatest strength. It’s also a course that tends to reward experience, and McIlroy is making his first start in Fort Worth.

He plotted his way around the classic layout with ease and led the field Friday in strokes gained/tee-to-green when he signed his card.

“This is a golf course that always lets the best players rise to the top,” McIlroy said. “You have to be in complete control of your game, hit fairways, hit greens, convert some putts. And yeah, the leader board is a who’s-who of golf right now. I’m just happy to be in the mix.”

McIlroy began his second round on the 10th tee and made three straight pars before back-to-back birdies at 13 and 14. He picked up another one at 17 after a wedge left just three feet for birdie.

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Darren Carroll for Golf Digest

The round kicked into a different gear on the first hole, McIlroy’s 10th, when he canned a 23-footer for eagle to reach five under for the day. He holed three more birdie putts, all nine feet or less, before heading to the ninth tee needing a birdie to tie the course record of 61. A fanned iron off the tee left him behind trees with no chance of reaching the green on the par 4. After a layup, his wedge came up well short and he needed to hole an eight-footer for bogey to close out a 63.

Like every other player in the field, McIlroy is playing his first event in three months. He waited out the worst of the quarantine in his South Florida home and did not being practicing until shortly before participating in last month’s TaylorMade Driving Relief event at Seminole, where he won a closest-to-the-pin playoff to give him and Dustin Johnson a victory over Matthew Wolff and Rickie Fowler.

“I learned a lot about my game yesterday just through 18 holes,” McIlroy said. “You can do as much practice as you want and play as much as you want at home, but until you actually get into that competitive environment, you’re never 100 percent sure of how your game is.

“So I learnt a lot yesterday, and I feel like I made some improvements today.”

Despite having no fans on site to witness it, the tour opted to group the top three players in the World Rankings—McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka—together at Colonial. Rahm shot 69-71 and will miss the cut, while Koepka shot 68-68 but sits well back at four-under total.

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