Rory McIlroy eased any concerns about the state of his game heading into the first major of 2016 as Jason Day set an imposing clubhouse target in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
McIlroy blew a four-shot lead in the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship and carded an opening 75 at Bay Hill, but bounced back with a five-under-par 67 to comfortably avoid a second missed cut in three events. However, the world number two 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-par halfway total of 131, just one shot outside the tournament record shared by fellow Australian 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.
McIlroy had kept pace with Day in the group ahead for much of the round thanks to six birdies in his first 14 holes, but 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 seventh, his 16th hole, after missing the green off the tee.
The 26-year-old admitted he had been shocked by starting his first round with a double bogey after driving out of bounds, telling Sky Sports: “Yesterday was a weird one because last week at home I was hitting the ball so well.
“My practice sessions were really good, I was playing well and then you tee it up in your first competitive round in a week and you hit it out of bounds left. It was a bit of a shock to the system for me because I was wondering where it came from.
“I didn’t really think anything of it and then a few more drives started to go left and I just need to work on it last night and figure it out on the range and thankfully I was able to figure it out and straightened it out today.”
Despite being so far behind Day, McIlroy has not given up all hope of getting into contention over the weekend, adding: “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.
“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 going forward.”
McIlroy will look to complete the career grand slam in the Masters next month and added: “I’ve been improving in all aspects of my game I feel. 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.”
Graeme McDowell missed the cut.