SHANGHAI — The graceful combination of power and balance. The bounce in his step after every birdie. His name at the top of the leaderboard. For at least one round, Rory McIlroy finally looked like the former No. 1 player in the world instead of a guy who hasn't won all year.
With eight birdies and hardly any stress, McIlroy opened the HSBC Champions on Thursday with 7-under 65 for a two-shot lead over Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and Jamie Donaldson. He has the outright lead after a round for the first time since he won in Dubai last November.
"It felt good to be out there and in control of my golf ball," McIlroy said.
Maybe it was a coincidence that McIlroy's only win of any variety was this week at Mission Hills, when he rallied to beat Tiger Woods in an 18-hole exhibition. That didn't hurt his confidence, though the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland pointed to other factors that have been leading him in this direction.
He took a four-week break, spending most of that time in Northern Ireland with swing coach Michael Bannon and "getting back to what we used to do." He has a new driver and a golf ball that is softer, giving him more spin around the greens.
And perhaps most importantly, he hasn't lost his mind or his patience during the most difficult season of his young career.
"It's obviously frustrating when you've had a couple of seasons previous where you've had success, and not being able to emulate that," he said. "The way I look at it, if I have a 25-year career, nine months isn't actually that long. I wouldn't say 'restless,' but obviously there's a point in time where you're thinking to yourself, 'Right, come on, let's get this back on track.' But I've tried to stay as patient as possible."
More patience is required against a strong field at Sheshan International for this World Golf Championships.
Fernandez-Castano is coming off his first win of the year last week at the BMW Masters. The group at 4-under 68 included U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, former Masters champion Bubba Watson and 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, playing as though last season never ended.
The timing was crucial for McIlroy.
Not only has he failed to win a tournament, he is at No. 62 in the Race to Dubai with only two tournaments remaining to get into the top 60 and qualify for the season-ending World Tour Championship in Dubai. McIlroy won the European Tour money title a year ago, as well as the PGA Tour money title.
"It's only 18 holes. It's only one round," he said. "But it's definitely the way I wanted and needed to start, keeping in mind that I obviously want to play myself into Dubai and try to pick up my first win of the season, as well."
CHAMPIONS: Australia's Peter Senior shot 8-under 63 for a one-stroke lead in the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship in San Francisco. Senior had nine birdies, an eagle and three bogeys. David Frost shot 64.