NORTON — Unlike so many others in the Deutsche Bank Championship field this week, Rory McIlroy isn’t fighting for a Ryder Cup spot (he’s on), won’t be stressing over the next PGA Tour playoff event (he’s in), and can’t be motivated to become the top-ranked player in the world, because he is, in fact, ranked No. 1.
McIlroy is certainly playing as if he’s under no pressure, posting his second straight 6-under-par 65 Saturday at TPC Boston to take a one-stroke lead at the halfway point of the 10th Deutsche Bank Championship.
Those desperate for a McIlroy-Tiger Woods rivalry might finally see the first act played out here, in a Labor Day weekend duel. Woods shot 68 and is tied at 10 under with Ryan Moore (68) for third, one shot behind Louis Oosthuizen (65). Had Woods birdied the easiest hole on the course — the par-5 18th — he would have been paired with McIlroy in Sunday’s final group.
If they end up battling for the victory here, the world’s top ranking might be at stake. McIlroy reclaimed No. 1 when he won the PGA Championship last month; Woods hasn’t had it since October 2010, and is now No. 3.
Both have positioned themselves properly through two rounds, taking advantage of a soft golf course and setting the pace in what has become a birdie-fest, with a number of eagles thrown in. McIlroy said before the tournament he thought it would take a 72-hole score between 15 and 18 under to win. He’s on pace to top that.
“Very pleased with how I played today, how I played yesterday as well, and in a great position going into the weekend,” McIlroy said. “Everything seemed to work pretty well out there. I drove the ball a bit better today and hit more fairways, which gave me some more opportunities to make birdies, and I was putting well enough to take a few of those.”
His work on the greens is what cost McIlroy last week at the Barclays, when he tied for 24th, but he has found the surfaces at TPC Boston much more to his liking. He has taken just 50 putts through two rounds (22 one-putts, no three-putts) and leads the field in the strokes gained-putting category.
“There’s been a big improvement in my putting from last week to this week,” McIlroy said. “I just found it very difficult on the greens last week, and this week the surfaces are much better, and it gives you a little more confidence that you can roll your putts at the hole a bit more.”
McIlroy is playing in the Deutsche Bank Championship for only the second time (he tied for 37th in 2010) and was tied for sixth after Friday’s first round. He began on No. 10 in the second round, and jumped into the lead with an 11-foot eagle putt on the par-5 18th, which capped an opening-nine 30.
His only two miscues came in succession. The approach to the par-5 second hole found the hazard fronting the green and led to a bogey, and he bogeyed the third when he missed the green left. But McIlroy came back with birdies on Nos. 4-5, both times converting from inside 9 feet. That pushed him back to 12 under, and he headed to the house with four closing pars.
Only Woods has three wins on the PGA Tour this year; a victory here would give McIlroy three, and factoring in the major he won, perhaps it would make him the favorite for Player of the Year honors.
First things first, though.
“I was very happy with the two scores that I’ve got already, and know that I need to go out and play just as good tomorrow to give myself a chance going into Monday,” McIlroy said. “[A Monday finish] sounds weird, but yeah. I just want to play as well as I can.”
If he does, it will be fun to see if it’s good enough to beat Woods, whose record at TPC Boston is unmatched: one win, two seconds, three other finishes of 11th or better.
Woods birdied his first two holes, and had five total, offset by bogeys at the third and 11th, both par 3s. He didn’t hit as many greens as the first round (16 Friday, 14 Saturday) and had two more putts (30).
“I’m happy with the way I hit it. I didn’t putt very good. I didn’t make anything,” Woods said. “Hopefully tomorrow will be a lot better.”
Better? McIlroy’s in the lead, with Woods two back. Sunday sounds better already.