SOUTHPORT, England -- A Rory McIlroy head bob doesn't make a sound, but something feels different about the air on a golf course when he begins to strut toward his ball, his whole body seemingly in rhythm with a cadence only he can hear.
You can feel a buzz in the gallery when it begins. There's a current that runs through the grandstands, an invisible electric hum of jittery anticipation that's unlike anything else in the current world of golf. McIlroy only bucks his head and lengthens his stride when he gets in contention at a major, when he's nuking drives and flagging his irons, and, unfortunately, we haven't experienced much of it in the past 18 months.
We're getting a dose of it this week, however, especially after McIlroy fired a sizzling 68 in blustery conditions to get back in contention at The Open Championship. He started the tournament Thursday by making five bogeys in the first six holes, then, to the surprise of just about everyone, he played the next 30 holes in 6 under par. By midmorning Friday, he was fist-pumping and club-twirling his way up the leaderboard, and the gallery following him at Royal Birkdale swelled to the point that patrons were packed together around the greens so tightly it felt as if we were sharing a subway car.
He might not be the most consistent golfer on earth, but he moves the needle more than anyone else currently playing, and he's the one golfer who can inject adrenaline into any major with a string of birdies. It would be a thrill if this continued through the weekend.
"I was very proud of myself that I hung in there and tried to stay as positive as I possibly could," said McIlroy, who, after a second-round 68 is at 1 under, 5 shots behind leader Jordan Spieth. "Look, I just had to turn it around. I had to find a couple of little key thoughts, and I feel like I have. And I went with those today and it worked. I'll try to keep those in my head going forward the next couple of days."
McIlroy came into this year's Open looking scarcely like the man who blitzed the field in this same tournament in 2014 at Royal Liverpool. That version of McIlroy was so confident with his putter, and so fearless with his lines off the tee, he looked as if he might be the second coming of Tiger Woods -- or at least the closest thing to Tiger we'd be lucky enough to get in this lifetime. In some ways, McIlroy charging up the leaderboard was even more fun than bearing witness to Woods' jaw-dropping dominance because McIlroy let you be a part of it. He wasn't robotic or godlike; it felt as if you were watching an affable mortal do amazing things.
I used to feel disappointed that McIlroy couldn't continue riding the wave of his historic 2014 season, but looking back, it somehow made me appreciate Tiger more, reminded me just how high the bar is for golfing excellence. McIlroy gave us Tiger-like thrills, but he could sustain them only in little bursts. When injuries and equipment changes held him back, it made me long all the more for another hot streak to come. We might be in the midst of one this week, and it's possible we have McIlroy's much-maligned caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, to thank for it. McIlroy confessed that Fitzgerald -- after watching his boss look utterly lost at the start of the tournament -- took a few seconds early in the round to remind him of something.
You're Rory McIlroy, Fitzgerald said. What the f--- are you doing?
"He reminded me who I was, basically," McIlroy said. "Thankfully he's not had to do it too often. But, yeah, he's had to do it a few times. And he's never afraid to do that. I feel today it helped a lot more than at other times because I needed something."
It's strange to think about one of the world's best athletes having self-confidence issues, but that's occasionally been the difference between McIlroy playing great and McIlroy playing mediocre golf. On Friday at No. 6, a mammoth 499-yard par-4 that's statistically playing as the hardest hole on the course this week, McIlroy pulled driver and flew the bunker at the corner of the dogleg, then launched midiron high into cold, soggy air from 173 yards. It landed softly, then came to rest 4 feet from the pin, setting up an easy birdie that helped him pick up a shot and a half on the field. You'll be hard pressed to find a bolder, or better, play at that hole this week.
"When you see a shot like the one I hit into 6, that does give you a lot of confidence," McIlroy said.
Perhaps just as impressive, though, was McIlroy's putting. It's been a mess of late, and he has cycled through a series of putters the way most people cycle through pairs of socks. He finally seems to have found one he likes, though, a TP Juno blade model from TaylorMade, and his confidence on the greens seems to be gradually returning. Several times Friday, McIlroy got out of position and had to make a lengthy par putt. He buried a 12-footer for par on the 10th hole, followed with a fist pump, then did the same on the 11th from a similar distance.
"They're the putts that haven't quite been going in over the past few weeks," McIlroy said. "That's all it takes to keep a round going, and to see those putts go in on 10 and 11 gives me a lot of confidence going into the weekend."
With as well as Spieth is playing, there is still a ton of ground McIlroy needs to make up to make a legitimate run at his fifth major championship. But, for the first time since the 2015 Masters, he's legitimately in the mix going into the weekend at a major. It's a rush to see him get some of his swagger back, and you can't help but want to ride the wave for as long it lasts.