PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- Well, the chamber of horrors that is the Champion Course at PGA National sure doesn't play favorites. As proof, many of the favorites aren't playing the Champion Course this weekend in the Honda Classic. Half of the field had yet to complete the second round because of nearly four hours of weather delays Friday, but the plethora of marquee players turning in their courtesy cars early was startling. Justin Rose, Billy Horschel, Dustin Johnson, Charl Schwartzel and Ernie Els were among the certain casualties, while Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell found themselves with ground to make up to survive the 36-hole cut when play resumes Saturday morning, weather permitting. Most shocking of all, however, was the thoroughly uninspired effort of world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, who had come into this event, his first this year on the PGA Tour, riding a wave that had begun with his victory in last year's Open Championship at Royal Liverpool. Having collected four wins and four second-place finishes in his last 12 starts, including the Claret Jug and his second PGA Championship title, McIlroy was rightly shocked by his inability to lift his game after an opening 73. Despite being presented a rain-softened course, he converted just one birdie in a 74 that left him at 7-over 147. Yes, he was surprised. And more. "I'm pissed off," he said frankly, unable to explain his desultory effort on a course where he lost to Russell Henley last year in a four-man playoff. "I think it's been since The Open in '13 the last time I missed a cut. I don't like missing cuts. You want to be playing on the weekend, and I'm not there. Well, I'm here; I'm home [he lives in nearby Jupiter]. I'm not going to be playing this weekend, which is … which is not nice."
With its many bunkers and water hazards lurking about, and wind a mean-spirited sidekick, the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion Course, renovated after last year's tournament, is not nice to anyone not on top of his game. McIlroy wasn't thought to be in that category, but he converted just five birdies against seven bogeys and two double-bogeys in two days. "It's a tough golf course, especially with the wind and everything," said Brooks Koepka, who, playing alongside McIlroy, rallied from an opening 78 to fire a 6-under 64 and earned a weekend tee time for the many family and friends in his gallery. "Yeah, it's surprising. He's the best player in the world right now. Any time he struggles, I think it would be a shock to everyone." The rain-plagued day started poorly for the Ulsterman when he bogeyed his opening hole, the long par-4 10th, but his situation became dire when he bogeyed the reachable par-5 18th after his second shot from the left rough found the water well short of the green. "I think that's maybe where it all … McIlroy said before he stopped himself, perhaps not wanting to finish the thought. " I made a bit of a bad decision on 18, hitting wood out of the rough. The lie looked pretty good. Felt like I could get it up around the green, but just didn't come out the way I expected it to." McIlroy converted his only birdie, from five feet, at the par-3 fifth, but then he closed with three bogeys, including at the last. It was a far cry from his last two starts, which included a victory at Dubai following second place at Abu Dhabi. He seemed confident that he could pick up where he left off, but, instead, he left his game overseas. "I guess after coming off a threeâweek break, and then felt a little ââ just a little, I wouldn't say rusty, but just not quite on top of my game yesterday," he said. "And then today, I mean, I felt like I was trying to get something going and couldn't. Coming off three weeks off and playing in conditions like these, it sort of shows you where your game's at. Just got to regroup and put some work in and get ready for Miami next week." McIlroy is competing next week at Trump Doral in Miami at the World Golf Championship-Cadillac Championship - after participating on Monday in the popular Seminole Pro-Member - followed by his first appearance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Then it's on to the Masters, where he will try to win his third straight major and go for completing the career Grand Slam. Not that he is giving that any thought. Or so he says. "I'm not really thinking of Augusta. I'm thinking of next week and just trying to play four solid rounds. The good thing about next week is we do have four rounds that we can get into some sort of rhythm."