SHANGHAI (AP) — The graceful combination of power and balance. The bounce in his step after every birdie. His name at the top of the leaderboard. For at least one round, Rory McIlroy finally looked like the former No. 1 player in the world instead of a guy who hasn’t won a tournament all year.
With eight birdies and hardly any stress, McIlroy opened the HSBC Champions on Thursday with a 7-under 65 for a two-shot lead over Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Jamie Donaldson. It was the first time since he won in Dubai last November that McIlroy has been in the outright lead after any round.
“It felt good to be out there and in control of my golf ball,” McIlroy said.
Maybe it was just a coincidence that McIlroy’s only win of any variety was earlier this week at Mission Hills when he rallied to beat Tiger Woods in an 18-hole exhibition. That didn’t hurt his confidence, though the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland pointed to other factors that have been leading him in this direction.
He took a four-week break, spending most of that time in Northern Ireland with swing coach Michael Bannon and “getting back to what we used to do.” He has a new driver and a golf ball that is softer, giving him more spin around the greens.
And perhaps most importantly, he hasn’t lost his mind or his patience during the most difficult season of his young career. More patience is required against a strong field at Sheshan International for this World Golf Championship.
Fernandez-Castano is coming off his first win of the year last week at the BMW Masters. The group at 4-under 68 included U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, former Masters champion Bubba Watson and 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, playing as though last season never ended. Another shot behind were Dustin Johnson, Paul Casey and Graeme McDowell, who remains second on the European Tour money list with hopes of catching Henrik Stenson.