A second-round 68, two under par for the day, moved the four-time major champion into red figures yesterday as his nightmare start to Thursday’s opening round was banished from the McIlroy mindset.
The Irishman had been five over after six holes of his first round but battled back to one over by the end of the day thanks to a stern pep talk from caddie JP Fitzgerald and a blistering back nine as McIlroy played with renewed positivity to post a round of 71, six back on overnight co-leaders Spieth, Brooks Koepka, and Matt Kuchar.
That upbeat approach continued yesterday morning as the world number four got out ahead of the heavy rain that blighted the day for the late starters, Spieth and Koepka among them.
Instead of five bogeys in his opening six holes, McIlroy carded three birdies over the same half-dozen and though he stuttered on the back nine he had torched the previous evening, he escaped with only two bogeys and signed off with another birdie at the par-five 17th to further limit the damage.
McIlroy signed for his card at one under par for the tournament before the really bad weather rolled in over the course, causing a 15-minute suspension of play at around 5.30pm.
When he completed his 36 holes he was in a tie for 13th but the worsening conditions played into the hands of the earlier starts and he will start today’s third round in a tie for sixth, five shots behind Spieth, who made light of the worst conditions to post a 69, one under par.
That gave him a two-shot cushion over fellow American Kuchar with England’s Ian Poulter a further shot back at three under in a tie for third with US Open champion Koepka, who carded a two-over 72. Scotland’s Richie Ramsey is alone in fifth at two under thanks to a level-par second-round 70, while McIlroy is tied at one under alongside Canada’s Austin Connelly, American Gary Woodland, and Englishman Richard Bland, with only the leading nine players under par.
“Very happy,” said McIlroy. “I think anything around even par today is going to be a great score.
“I got off to a good start, which I think is important today. The back nine is playing really, really difficult. So to birdie three of the first six and give myself that little bit of a cushion to play with was nice.
“I made some key up-and-downs on the start of the back nine. To be in after two days and be under-par for this championship after the way I started, I’m ecstatic with that.
“The confidence can return in the middle of a round like we saw yesterday. I just wanted to continue that positivity I had yesterday evening. I just need to keep that frame of mind for the next few days.”
McIlroy’s odds for the championship had drifted to 389/1 after the sixth hole on Thursday but he is now back in contention heading into today’s third round, his first bogey coming 25 holes later at the par-four 13th of his second round.
There had been some wonderful golf in between as McIlroy’s putting form returned in tandem with his confidence. Gone was the poor body language that accompanied his tentative early-round play on Thursday, an inevitable product of three missed cuts in his previous four starts. Instead, the familiar jaunty bounce of Positive Rory returned as birdies rattled in at the first and third holes.
There was also a rare birdie at the par-four sixth to move McIlroy to two under, thanks to an excellent approach shot to 4ft at a hole playing the most difficult at Birkdale.
Following the bogey at 13, McIlroy could have unravelled. He had been struggling since the turn, battling to save par at successive holes until the seemingly inevitable setback arrived. He battled to save par at the par-three 14th, sending in a great chip from the back of the green, but then dropped another shot at the first of the par fives, the 15th.
And yet. At the 17th, the other par five, McIlroy gave himself an eagle chance with a second shot past the hole. Unfortunately, it trundled off the green to below the hole and McIlroy had to chip back onto the putting surface. Still, it was his first birdie opportunity from 4ft and the Irishman took it to get back into red figures at one under par.
“I set myself a target of being in a better position today than I was yesterday,” added McIlroy.
“I finished the (opening) round one over. I wanted to be at least level par or under par if possible for the championship. And I’ve been able to achieve that goal that I set myself. They’re both huge rounds for very different reasons. But this was definitely the round that got me back into the championship.”
Spieth has never not been in contention this week and significantly, his rounds of 65 on Thursday and last night’s 69 marks the third time in his major championship career that he has begun his campaign with consecutive rounds in the 60s, the significance being that he went on to win the other two, the 2015 Masters and that year’s US Open.
With the wind dying and the rain abating following the 15-minute suspension as surface water was squeegeed from the course, Spieth made his move. The world number three had a mixed front nine of one birdie and two bogeys, yet the break in the weather allowed the American to break free from the logjam at the top of the leaderboard by putting his excellent short game to work.
He chipped in from the fringe of the green with a lob wedge at the 10th to save par and then rolled in a 30ft birdie putt at the par-four 11th. At the 12th, Spieth was at it again, this time putting out from 25ft to open a two-shot lead on Kuchar and Koepka.
It was back to one with a bogey at 14 but that was quickly forgotten as the American lashed a fairway wood out of left rough on the par-five 15th and then rolled the ball up to 12ft from the hole, from where he barrelled the ball in for eagle to take a three-shot lead at seven under.
There would be one more dropped shot at the next hole but Spieth remains firmly in control and on course for a third major victory.