Rory McIlroy was going backward.
Through his first four holes Friday, the 2010 Wells Fargo champion looked like a duffer. He was 5 over par in those four holes, falling off the leader board so quickly that he spent the rest of a gloriously sunny afternoon in danger of missing the cut.
Only when McIlroy parred No. 17 and No. 18 did he manage to earn a ticket to the weekend, finishing a nasty round of 76 to qualify exactly on the number. At 1 over, he will go into Saturday 10 strokes behind the leaders.
“Just sloppy shots,” McIlroy said afterward. He could have added that he missed three putts in the 3-5 foot range.
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And yet we have seen this movie before. In 2010, McIlroy needed an eagle on his 16th hole of the day on Friday just to make the cut. He did that and found himself at 1 over after two rounds, just like now.
Then McIlroy scorched his way to a 66 on Saturday and a course-record 62 on Sunday and won by four strokes. Could history repeat itself?
“I would like to think so,” McIlroy said. “We saw what Brendon de Jonge did today (shooting a 62 to tie McIlroy’s record). There are low scores out there.”
McIlroy, who turns 25 Sunday, is one of the best young players in the game. His win in Charlotte four years ago, at age 20, was one of the signature moments both of his career and of the Wells Fargo Championship.
He can be stunning to watch. McIlroy is as skinny as a greyhound. Yet he has such vicious club speed that he whipped a gorgeous drive 375 yards down the fairway on No. 16 Friday. And yet he still managed to make bogey.
It was that sort of day for the native of Northern Ireland, who during his career has already been ranked No. 1 in the world and won two majors. He certainly has the talent to make up 10 strokes in two days, but he must locate his putting stroke.
In 2010, McIlroy ended his final round with six straight “3s” on his scorecard. He rolled in a 42-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to finish with a flourish, pumping his right fist in the air as the crowd roared.
On Friday, McIlroy did manage to get it together after that horrid start. “I gathered myself a little bit after that that and battled back OK,” McIlroy said.
He shot 40 on the front nine and was even-par 36 on the back to barely make the cut. But he wasn’t happy. He was obviously itching to get finished with his media obligations so he could get back out to the putting green, for his putter had betrayed him much of the day.
“I’m driving the ball well,” said McIlroy, who opened on Thursday with a 69. “At least it’s setting me up to give myself opportunities where I can try and make birdies. But I’m going to have to play very well over the weekend.”
For a long time, McIlroy was a golf prodigy. At age 15, he hit a 405-yard drive in competition.
Now he is old enough to be well-versed in the difficulties of leaping over 50 other golfers in two days but young enough to think he can still do it.
“At least I made it through to the weekend,” McIlroy said.
Now he has to try to do something that would seem to be almost impossible – except for the fact he already did it once.