Still, he had a number in mind to make the cut. At No. 18, he told his caddie, Harry Diamond, that he wanted to shoot three under on his back nine.
“I said to Harry, ‘Let’s not shoot any worse than I shot yesterday,’ ” he said.
In that first-round 72, McIlroy did not make a birdie until the last hole. He had a whopping 36 putts, which ranked 113th in the all-important strokes gained category. After Friday’s round, he was talking like someone without much confidence rather than the best player in the world, which he was not very long ago.
“The ones that didn’t go in could have gone in, and the ones that went in could have missed,” McIlroy said.
But he caught fire down the stretch, the flurry of birdies coming from 12 feet out at No. 4; from more than 23 feet at No. 5; from 22 feet at No. 6; and from just under 19 feet at No. 8.
“It’s just a matter of not pressing too much, staying patient and letting the good golf sort of come through,” he said. “It took a while today, but it eventually got there.”
McIlroy, who will head into Saturday’s action 15 shots off the lead, was a realist about the chances of claiming his fifth major title. He knew just how difficult it would be to mount a serious charge on a course that is not built for comebacks.
“I don’t feel like I’m carrying any sort of momentum into tomorrow,” he said. “I played a nice back nine to make it into the weekend, but tomorrow is a new day.”
If he is to have any chance, though, he knows one thing must change.
“Hopefully I can just start a little bit better,” he said.