PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. —
Henley opened with five birdies and six holes before he cooled off for a 64. Past champion Rory Sabbatini, William McGirt and Jamie Donaldson of Wales were at 65.
Zach Johnson was four shots behind and thrilled about his 67. He hit two shots into the water on his way to a quadruple-bogey 8 on his second hold of the tournament. The former Masters champ followed with seven birdies to get back in the game.
“It was a day where it could have gone the other way — quick,” Johnson said.
McIlroy has been shifting gears since late last year, which he closed out with a win at the Australian Open. He had chances to win in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and he played well in a second-round loss to Harris English last week at Match Play.
But this looked like the McIlroy who won two majors, each by eight shots, bobbing along the fairways and swinging with no fear. It helped to make a few putts, such as the 25-foot birdie on No. 2 and a 45-foot birdie putt on No. 11. He had a few par saves that kept him motoring along, such as the up-and-down from 40 yards at No. 9, making a putt from just outside 10 feet.
Boy Wonder took off from there. He hit into 8 feet for birdie on the 493-yard 10th hole, made the long one at No. 11 and then stuffed a gap wedge into 6 feet on No. 12.
“You can’t fake it around here,” McIlroy said. “You have to play well to shoot good scores, and I was able to do that today.”
McIlroy put last year behind him, though it was hard to ignore the turnaround.
He was the defending champion and No. 1 in the world last year, newly signed to a big Nike contract and struggling to break par. He also was in the early stages of leaving a management company for the second time in two years. It all got to be too much, and as he walked up to the 18th green at PGA National, he shook hands and headed straight to the parking lot. He said then he was “not in a good place mentally.”