McIlroy Excels in First Round of Honda Classic

Rory McIlroy fired a spotless 7-under 63 to take the opening-round lead in the Honda Classic. The $6 million event - the first stop on PGA Tour's "Florida Swing" - began Thursday at the Champion Course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

The 24-year-old posted two birdies on the front nine and five more on the back side of a tough par-70 layout, where he's enjoyed prior success. The Ulsterman won the tournament in 2012, a victory that propelled him to a four-win season and the money-list titles on both the PGA and European tours.

Unfortunately, it was last year's Honda Classic that left some with a longer-lasting impression of McIlroy after he walked off the course midway through the second round. Initially citing a dental problem as the reason for withdrawing, he later made a retraction and apologized to the sponsor, his playing partners and the fans for a sudden departure he later attributed to off-course distractions.

But all was copasetic Thursday as McIlroy hit 10 of 14 fairways and made some clutch putts in his first official stroke-play event on American soil since the BMW Championship last September. He polished off the round with back-to-back birdies.

"I played really solid, the key to doing well around here is hitting fairways and greens, it is a real ball-striker's golf course," McIlroy told reporters after the round.

"If you can keep your ball in play you can give yourself plenty of birdie chances. That's the name of the game here and that par save on nine kept that bogey-free round alive."

As for last year's disappointment, McIlroy says he's gotten past that. "It's not something I really thought about out there," he noted. "Coming in this week, I knew that I was playing well and I just wanted to try and get off to a good start. Regardless of what happened last year or where it is, it's always nice to shoot a round like this and get yourself in the mix early."

One stroke back is Russell Henley. Starting on the 10th tee, the 24-year-old Georgian carded a birdie on his front nine before tacking on five more - in six holes - on the back for a 5-under 30 on his home half.

Henley agreed with McIlroy on the importance of not getting behind the 8-ball early on the Champion Course. "Getting off to a good start here is pretty important," said the Georgia native. "Every hole is challenging, and you have to decide what to do with the wind and where it's coming from."

Six-time Tour winner Rory Sabbatini, whose most recent victory came in the 2011 Honda Classic, carded a 65 to share third with William McGirt and Scotland's Jamie Donaldson.

Recording 66s were Americans Derek Ernst, Tommy Gainey, Matt Every and Brice Garnett, along with Zimbabwe's Brendon de Jonge.

Among those shooting 67 was Zach Johnson, who was unceremoniously ousted in the first round at last week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, and Luke Donald, playing only his third American tournament of the season.

No. 2-ranked Adam Scott, in his first competition in six weeks, opened with a respectable 68, and No. 5 Phil Mickelson had a 70.

In his second event of 2014, top-ranked Tiger Woods opened with a so-so 71. Starting his round on the 10th tee, Woods did okay early, making the turn in 1-under par after a birdie on the par-5 18th. But after the turn he stumbled to a double-bogey on the par-4 second (his 11th hole) and came home with two more bogeys and a pair of birdies for a 2-over 37.

"I didn't make much," said the 79-time Tour winner, who, interestingly, has never won this tournament in his illustrious career. "The first four holes out of the gate I had four good looks, didn't make any of them. I didn't hit the ball very well on the back nine. I have to start putting better."

Defending champion Michael Thompson also struggled. The 28-year-old carded a 74.

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