Rory McIlroy finally breaks par and sees evidence of progress

Rory McIlroy was willing to celebrate even the smallest of victories Friday in the Cadillac Championship.

He finally broke par.

Mired in another slump, and this time with greater scrutiny over a new equipment deal and quitting in the middle of a round last week, McIlroy had a 3-under 69 on the Blue Monster at Doral for his first round under par this year.

When his 8-foot birdie putt on the par-5 10th hole swirled into the cup, the world's No. 1 player was under par for the first time all week on the Blue Monster. He rattled in three more birdies on the back nine and at one point he saw his mother, Rose, walking along in the gallery.

"I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm in red numbers,'" McIlroy said with a laugh. "But you know, it's good. It's nice to shoot something in the 60s and definitely build on over the next couple of days."

Now for the bad news. He's still 11 shots behind Tiger Woods, the 36-hole leader of this World Golf Championship.

Even so, there was a noticeable improvement. McIlroy no longer was taking an abbreviated practice swing when he set up over the ball. He settled into his stance and let it rip, and he found the short grass far more often than his opening 73.

McIlroy said he had a good session on the practice range Thursday evening and felt as though he hit the ball better, though still not as well as he can.

"But it was better," he said. "I saw a lot of positives. I hit a really good 6-iron into the eighth hole and hit a great 3-wood off the 10th. I saw a lot of good signs out there."

His putter remains a work in progress. McIlroy didn't make one putt over 10 feet, and even his best shot of the day — that towering 6-iron on the par-5 eighth that landed just inside 6 feet from the cup — was followed by an eagle putt that didn't come close to even touching the hole.

He ended his round with a three-putt bogey.

"Three-putted a couple times," he said. "That's not really what I'm focusing on right now. It's about the ball striking. And the ball striking, it's getting there. Days like today were very pleasing because it shows that I'm going in the right direction."

For all the talent of the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland, bad stretches are nothing new. A year ago, he missed four cuts in five tournaments and looked lost. And then he won the PGA Championship by a record eight shots, won two FedEx Cup playoff events against the strongest fields, closed out the year with a win in Dubai and captured the money title on golf's two biggest tours.

But he started this season with a new equipment contract with Nike, and in three tournaments he played only 80 holes. The low point was last week in the Honda Classic when he walked off the course after 26 holes, later conceding that he was frustrated.

"You go through these periods in golf where you just have a tough time and things don't click right away," McIlroy said. "It's understandable. It would be great if it wasn't like that, and it would make the game a lot easier. I'm pleased with today. Overall, I saw some positives out there, something to build on going into the next two days, and obviously, the next few weeks."

McIlroy has only one other tournament scheduled before the Masters starts April 11. He is to play the Houston Open two weeks before the year's first major. He did not enter the Tampa Bay Classic next week, though he could still add Bay Hill the following week if he feels he needs more competition.