Rory McIlroy believes he is playing well enough to give himself chances to win every week – but has challenged himself to prove he can take those opportunities when under pressure.
The World No.5 was outstanding in his opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, dropping a shot on his second hole, the 11th, but responding superbly with six birdies and an eagle in a seven-under 65 to lead by three at time of writing.
In an impervious performance, McIlroy led the field in strokes gained: off the tee and tee to green and has already positioned himself in a very strong position to be at the business end of the tournament come Sunday evening.
McIlroy has already given himself a chance to win this season at the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic, a wayward second shot on the par-five 18th costing him a place in the play-off, but has started superbly in Orlando in his bid to win for the first time this year.
With the first Major of the year, the Masters, only five weeks away there will obviously be questions raised by how prepared the Holywood man is for his latest bid to complete the career Grand Slam, but he doesn’t believe that he needs to have a win under his belt before he heads to Augusta.
“It’s nice to win just regardless. I mean, regardless of when it comes in the season, it’s nice to win,” said McIlroy, the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational champion.
“This is my fourth start of the calendar year, and I’ve had one really good chance to win and probably one other half chance. I feel like I’m playing well enough to have chances to win golf tournaments, but all you can ask of yourself is to keep putting yourself in those positions on Sundays, and then you see where your game really is.
“Hopefully this is another week where I put myself in a position where I can really see where my game is when the pressure’s on.”
His latest attempt to win has gotten off to an excellent start, although after his opening two holes it looked like McIlroy might be going in the opposite direction.
An eight-footer for birdie drifted by on the 10th, then the 32-year-old failed to get up-and-down from behind the 11th green and dropped his only shot of the day to fall to one-over. But after that he was exceptional.
A two-putt birdie on the par-five 12th got him back to level and then he followed it with a 12-footer from the fringe for another birdie at the par-four 13th, before McIlroy drained the longest eagle putt of his PGA Tour career with a 41-footer on the par-five 16th.
He finished his opening nine with a seven-footer for birdie at the par-four 18th and then started his back nine with two superb approaches to three- and five-feet respectively at the par-four third and par-five fourth, yielding back-to-back birdies.
The four-time Major champion then rounded off his scoring with another two-putt birdie on the par-five sixth and a fine sand save at the ninth got him into the clubhouse three shots better than fellow countryman Graeme McDowell, playing partner Adam Scott, Sungjae Im and Will Zalatoris.
“I think you turn up at any golf course where you’ve had success, and automatically you’re going to have some confidence coming in. I’ve shot some really nice scores here. I think the last couple of years I’ve opened up the tournament really well with scores similar to what I shot today,” added McIlroy.
“I feel there’s a nice flow to this golf course where you can really build a score. You have par-fives, one every few holes, and you’ve got a couple of scorable par-fours. As long as you don’t do anything stupid and you keep it in play, you feel like you can sort of methodically build a score on this golf course. That’s what I tried to do today.
“I played the par-fives particularly well, and that was the bulk of the score. I’ve sort of said this all along. You can play within yourself here and still shoot a good score, I feel, if you’re just disciplined and pick off the birdies where you’re supposed to.
“I hit a couple of really good long irons into a couple of (the par-fives). I hit a four-iron into 12 and a four-iron into six. They were probably two of the best long irons I hit in a while. So when I start hitting long irons like that, I know my swing’s in a pretty good place. Seeing shots like that certainly gives me some confidence.”