McIlroy off the pace but still taking it one Day at a time

MIAMI • Rory McIlroy on Friday eased any concerns about the state of his game heading into the first Major this year as Jason Day set an imposing clubhouse target in golf's Arnold Palmer Invitational.

McIlroy blew a four-shot lead in the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship and recorded an opening 75 at Bay Hill but bounced back with a five-under 67 to avoid a second missed cut in three events.

However, the world No. 2 still found himself 11 shots off the blistering pace set by Day, who added a flawless 65 to his opening 66 for a 13-under halfway total of 131, one shot outside the tournament record shared by Adam Scott, Tom Watson and Andy Bean.

"It would be nice to go eight under tomorrow," joked Day, whose best score at Bay Hill before the start of the week had been 68.

Starting on the back nine, the US PGA champion birdied the 12th, 16th and 17th holes to reach the turn in 33, before picking up four more birdies on the inward half and closing his round by holing from 35 feet on the ninth.

"I said after yesterday's round I was just trying to stay patient and came out and started off really solid and kept it up," Day, the world No. 3, said on PGA Tour Radio. "I drove the ball nicely and hit a lot of good-quality shots into the greens."

McIlroy had kept pace with Day in the group ahead for much of the round with six birdies in his first 14 holes. But he failed to birdie three of the four par-fives and eventually had to settle for a 67 after dropping his only shot of the day on the 7th, his 16th hole, after missing the green off the tee.

Despite being 11 strokes behind the Australian, McIlroy has not given up hope of getting into contention over the weekend.

"I need to set myself a target and try to get to that, try to emulate what he has done over the first two days. If I was to go out and shoot a couple of 66s over the weekend I don't feel like I would be too far away," the Northern Irishman said.

"I can't think about Jason being 11 shots ahead of me, I have to make as many birdies as I can and, even if that's not good enough at the end of the week, I can take a lot of positives and a lot of confidence from that."

McIlroy will look to complete a career grand slam in the Masters next month.

"I've been improving in all aspects of my game, I feel," he said.

"My short game, my putting feels a lot better which is obviously key around Augusta.

"I've been working on the right things and hopefully it all comes together for me in April."

Sweden's Henrik Stenson was alone in second on 133, after firing a 66, with former US Open champion Justin Rose of England a further stroke back, also after a 66.

THE GUARDIAN, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'McIlroy off the pace but still taking it one Day at a time'. Print Edition | Subscribe