PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Golf is starting to feel easy again for Rory McIlroy, who bounced back from a sloppy start Friday in the Honda Classic for a 4-under 66 that gave him his first 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour in 18 months.
Tiger Woods is making it look hard.
McIlroy recovered from two early bogeys by running off six birdies in a 10-hole stretch. He looked solid from tee-to-green, hit putts with growing confidence and wound up with a one-shot lead over Brendon de Jonge.
"I knew that with the way I'm playing and the confidence in my ability, I would be able to get those shots back," McIlroy said. "I didn't panic. I didn't try to do anything different. Just tried to keep playing the way I was."
He was at 11-under 129.
Woods felt fortunate to still be playing. He was over the cut line after scrambling for a bogey on the 11th hole and wound up with a 69 to make the cut on the number. Woodshit only two greens over his last nine holes. His lone birdie on the back nine was a chip-in on the 13th after he missed the green with a wedge.
"It was a grind, there's no doubt about it," Woods said. "I didn't hit it very good. Just one of those days where I fought out a number, which was good."
Because 79 players made the cut, there will be another cut to top 70 and ties on Saturday. Woods missed the 54-hole cut the last time he played on the PGA Tour at Torrey Pines.
And at least he's still playing the weekend. That wasn't the case for Phil Mickelson. Playing the Honda Classic for the first time in 12 years, he had a 71 to miss the cut. So did Henrik Stenson, the No. 3 player in the world, with rounds of 73-76.
McIlroy knew the feeling a year ago, when he took a steep fall from No. 1 in the world while changing equipment and trying to live up to high expectations, leading to his snap decision to walk off the course after 26 holes last year at the Honda Classic.
A growing gallery in warm sunshine at PGA National saw a familiar game — the McIlroy who won the Honda Classic two years ago.
Swinging freely and putting beautifully, McIlroy hit his stride on his back nine with four birdies in five holes, including the par-5 third when he smashed a drive some 35 yards past Adam Scott and had only a 6-iron into the green on the 539-yard hole.
De Jonge, who has never won on the PGA Tour, played early in the afternoon when the wind picked up and put eight birdies on his card in a 64. He was tied for the lead when he missed the green with a wedge on No. 9 and made bogey. Even so, he'll be in the last group Saturday with McIlroy.
"I think I might have got a little bit of switch in the wind," de Jonge said.
Russell Henley had a 68 and was three shots behind. Russell Knox of Scotland had the low round Friday at 63 and was four shots back along with Lee Westwood (65).
But the focus is clearly on McIlroy, who each week looks to be getting better.
"This year is obviously a lot different," McIlroy said. "Got off to a good start. I'm confident. I'm playing well. This is the second straight tournament I've opened with a 63, so if I can keep building on these good starts, then hopefully I can start converting."
After a 63 in Dubai, he said he was pressing too much in the final round and wound up in a tie for ninth.
Friday was another step in the right direction, despite two errant tee shots on the 11th and 12th holes that led to bogeys. His round changed with a tee shot into 6 feet on the 16th hole for a birdie, and then a 12-foot birdie on the 18th to wrap up his front nine and earn back the two shots he had dropped.
After a 45-foot birdie attempt on the second hole rimmed all the way around and out of the cup, Boy Wonder took off. He two-putted the par-5 third. He hit a wedge into 4 feet on the next hole. He rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt down the hill at the par-5 fifth. Then, after a tough par save on the sixth, he sank another 30-foot birdie putt that McIlroy made look routine.
The gallery is kept 100 yards from the green, so the only applause came from a few marshals. It sounded like a tap-in for par. McIlroy reacted that way, too.
"Watching Rory play is amazing when he's swinging like this," Scott said after his own great recovery.
The Masters champ put shots in the water on the 16th and 17th holes, both times making double bogey, and it looked as though his return to golf after a six-week break would be a short one. But the Australian ran off four birdies on the front nine for a 70.
It will take a lot more to catch McIlroy, who has taken only 49 putts through two rounds.
"That's probably the lowest putting total after 36 I've probably had, maybe in my career," he said. "So it's obviously going in the right direction."