Rory McIlroy is confident he can overturn a six-shot deficit to the in-form Hideki Matsuyama and claim a fourth win of the year in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.
World number three McIlroy managed just two birdies in an opening 71 at Sheshan International on Thursday to trail overnight leader Rikard Karlberg by seven shots.
And although the four-time major winner carded seven birdies in a second round of 66, that was only good enough to reduce his deficit by a single shot thanks to a brilliant 65 from Matsuyama.
Matsuyama, who is a career-high 10th in the world after winning the Japan Open a fortnight ago and finishing second in the CIMB Classic last week, had 10 birdies and four bogeys in an opening 66 and added four more birdies and two bogeys in a front nine of 34.
The 24-year-old then started the back nine with a hat-trick of birdies and picked up further shots on the 14th and 18th to finish 13 under par, three shots ahead of American Bill Haas and defending champion Russell Knox.
England’s Richard Bland, Italy’s Francesco Molinari and American Daniel Berger were two shots further back, with McIlroy, Paul Casey and Ross Fisher on seven under alongside China’s Xinjun Zhang.
McIlroy, who had never finished outside the top six at Sheshan International until his share of 11th place last year, told Sky Sports 4: “I felt like I hit the ball very similar the first two days, I was just able to capitalise on some of the good drives that I hit today and being able to hole a few more putts makes a big difference at the end of the day.
“I’ve been able to come back from six behind with 18 to play, so over 36 holes a lot of things can happen.
“Hideki’s playing very well and will be tough to catch, but from what I saw out there today, if I can keep that sort of golf going over the next two days I should have a chance.”
McIlroy has not played competitively since following his Tour Championship victory by winning three points from five matches in Europe’s Ryder Cup defeat at Hazeltine.
But the 27-year-old still has plenty to play for as he tries to match Henrik Stenson’s achievement of winning the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai in the same season.
“It’s a little difficult coming off two weeks of intense competition when your adrenalin’s pumping and it’s sometimes hard to get yourself back up for it,” added McIlroy, who started the week more than a million points behind Danny Willett - who is eight over par - in the Race to Dubai.
“But it’s a WGC and I think after the FedEx Cup I needed to reassess my goals and try and do the double, win the Race to Dubai as well as what I’ve already achieved this year. There’s a lot to play for and that’s why it’s pretty easy to get motivated for the next few weeks.”
Matsuyama has recorded just seven pars in 36 holes, but credited an improved attitude for his superb recent form.
“I’ve played here before and haven’t done well at all, so this is a nice surprise for me,” he said. “I’m not sure what has made the difference. Maybe it’s my attitude - I’m having fun and enjoying myself.”
Haas carded a second consecutive 67 while Knox, who is looking to become only the second player after Tiger Woods to successfully defend a WGC event, added a 68 to his opening 66.
“I had a couple of chances there at the end, which I would have loved to have made.”