Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, tips his cap after finishing the first round of the Honda Classic golf tournament in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Thursday, March 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. -- The more putts he makes, the more confidence he has over the putts that can turn a decent round into something much better.
That explains why Rory McIlroy opened with a 4-under 66 on Thursday in the Honda Classic, leaving him two shots behind Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III and a small step closer toward establishing himself as the best player in golf.
And that explains why Tiger Woods left PGA National feeling as if he played better than his score of 71.
Love made a hole-in-one and finished with two birdies to tie the course record at PGA National with a 64, making him the 10th player to post that number since the Honda Classic moved here five years ago.
Love is 47 and still competitive, even though his mind is largely on assembling a team and a strategy to win back the Ryder Cup this fall at Medinah. He has been around long enough to realize that a good opening round, while pleasing, doesn't mean much.
"I've been hitting the ball real well, and a lot of tournaments last year I just didn't get off to a good start," Love said. "So I'm just glad to be off to a good start."
Even so, the name that got all the attention was McIlroy, the 22-year-old U.S. Open champion from Northern Ireland. Coming off a runner-up finish in the Match Play Championship, he needs to win to reach No. 1 in the world.
His 66 didn't seem to require much effort. McIlroy twice holed tricky par putts from about 5 feet on the first three holes, and from there gave himself plenty of looks from 20 feet and closer and made enough of them to open strongly in calm, morning conditions.
"That's been a huge improvement, especially inside 6 feet," McIlroy said. "I definitely don't miss as many as I used to. I feel a lot more confident over those putts. I've always been pretty good from like 15 to 25 feet. I've always holed my fair share, but those putts that you should hole all the time are the only that I've definitely improved on.
"The more you see the ball go in from there, the more confidence you get."
His lone bogey was a three-putt from 50 feet, understandable because McIlroy had not faced a putt over 25 feet for some three hours until the 17th hole of his round.
McIlroy was joined at 66 by a large group that included Justin Rose, Ryan Palmer and Harris English, the PGA Tour rookie who won on the Nationwide Tour last year as an amateur and has yet to miss a cut this year.
Most of the low scoring came from the morning, when conditions were soft and benign, and before the south Florida wind arrived. Woods played in the afternoon. Making his first appearance in this event as a pro, he didn't distinguish himself.
He only missed three greens, but failed to save par each time. His other bogey was a three-putt from 50 feet. He also failed to get up-and-down from left of the par-5 18th green, having to settle for par.
Woods only had two birdie chances inside 10 feet. He was tied for 68th, seven shots behind, going into Friday morning's round.
"I didn't get a whole lot out of my round," Woods said. "I hit the ball a lot better than I scored, and I certainly putted well, and I didn't hardly get anything out of the round. Hopefully, tomorrow it will be better."As even more attention shifts to McIlroy, he seems to embrace it. He made his opening round at PGA National look easy, rarely putting pressure on any part of his game.
He birdied the last two holes of the back nine, made the turn and picked up another birdie on the par-4 second by smartly playing short of the bunkers and firing his approach into a breeze to about 18 feet from a back pin. His final birdie came on the par-3 seventh, when caddie J.P. Fitzgerald talked him into a hard 6-iron that stopped 12 feet short of the cup.
"It was pretty stress-free out there," McIlroy said. "I hit quite a few fairways and a lot of greens and gave myself a lot of chances, and that's sort of what you need to do around this golf course."
Love was even par when he reached the par-5 fifth, where he hit a hard 5-iron that drew gently toward the flag, and the next thing he heard was wild cheering from around the green.
"I knew when we were on the range this morning that early scores were going to be better, and you'd better get off to a good start," Love said. "I was parring along there, had not made a birdie yet then all of a sudden was 2 under. So that was a big boost."
It helped that PGA National was more benign than usual.
Because of rain Wednesday and the possibility of some afternoon showers, players were able to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairway, which always helps. The greens were smooth in the morning, another advantage. And there wasn't much wind.
PGA champion Keegan Bradley and former British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen were among those at 67.
Bradley played with McIlroy and Phoenix Open winner Kyle Stanley. Their games are so similar that after their opening tee shots at No. 10, their tee shots landed in a line next to each other, separated by no more than five paces.
Stanley struggled to a 75, brought on by three consecutive three-putts early in the round.
Bradley and McIlroy surged ahead, and Bradley looked forward to more occasions like that.
"I love playing with Rory for a lot of reasons," he said. "We're both very competitive, and I like the kid. He's just a good kid, a good Irish kid."
The 25-year-old Bradley was reminded that the kid was only three years younger.
But there seems to be an appreciation that McIlroy soon could be the guy against whom players measure themselves. Bradley was a two-time winner last year as a rookie, and his work on the short game -- particularly his chipping -- appears to be paying off. There were several holes where Bradley turned potential trouble into an easy par.
"There's nothing more in the game of golf that makes me feel good than chipping up close," he said. "It's better than making a 50-foot bomb or hitting a 300-yard drive. It's been the different between being in the middle of the pack and contending."McIlroy is contending just about every time he plays, and this is an important stretch. He has two tournaments left before he takes his three-week break to prepare for the Masters.