ATLANTA (Reuters) - A bizarre bounce of his ball into a spectator's pocket and an unexpected birdie-birdie finish helped Rory McIlroy surge into contention for the Tour Championship with a sizzling display in Friday's second round.
The world number one, hunting his fifth victory of the year worldwide, fired a five-under-par 65 on a steamy day at East Lake Golf Club to finish at six under, two strokes off the lead in the PGA Tour's fourth and final playoff event.
After sinking a nine-foot birdie putt at the 12th, McIlroy did well to par the 14th after his tee shot sailed into trees before the ricocheting ball ended up in the right-hand pocket of a spectator's shorts.
McIlroy shook hands with the bemused golf fan and shared a brief laugh with him before getting a free drop in the right rough, from where he hit his second shot to 20 feet and comfortably two-putted for par.
The Northern Irishman then stunningly moved into a brief share of the lead with a birdie-birdie finish, sinking a 20-footer at the 17th before coaxing in a curling 27-footer at the uphill par-three last.
"It was a really good way to finish," four-times major champion McIlroy told reporters after mixing six birdies with a lone bogey to shoot the best score of the day. "I think it really started out when I made a good par putt on 16.
"That kept the momentum of the round going," he said of a 13-foot putt for par at the 16th. "Did exact same thing yesterday, was able to birdie 17.
"And 18 was a bit of a bonus. I had a decent shot in there, but it was a pretty tricky putt up that hill with a lot of right-to-left breaks. I was trying to get it somewhere close to the hole. Once I hit it, I knew I had a chance. It dropped in."
McIlroy has already enjoyed a brilliant 2014 campaign, clinching two major crowns among his four wins, and has now set his sights on claiming FedExCup playoff honors, a title he has never won and has specifically targeted this week.
Three strokes off the pace going into Friday's second round at East Lake, he recorded three birdies and a bogey at the fourth, where he found a fairway bunker off the tee, to reach the turn in two-under 33.
His bogey-free back nine, highlighted by his birdies at the 12th, 17th and the last, kept him in contention for the Tour Championship and the mind-boggling playoff bonus of $10 million.
Giving McIlroy extra motivation this week is the fact that he narrowly missed out on FedExCup honors two years ago after he had arrived at East Lake heading the point standings following consecutive wins in the four-event playoffs.
He ended up tying for 10th in that year's Tour Championship, his only previous start in the elite limited-field event, and was edged out by tournament winner Brandt Snedeker in the race for the FedExCup.
"It would be the icing on the cake," McIlroy said of what a victory would mean to him after his impressive major victories at the British Open and PGA Championship.
"Before coming into these FedExCup playoffs, having won four times in a season, two majors, a World Golf Championship, the flagship event on the European tour, it was going to be a great season anyway.
"I wanted to cap it off in style and I've given myself a chance to do that over the next two days," said the Northern Irishman, who trails pacesetting American Billy Horschel by two shots heading into Saturday's third round.
As for the fortunate bounce of his ball at the par-four 14th, McIlroy said it was the second time this year he has contended with a similar situation.
"I hit it off someone's leg at the Scottish Open in Aberdeen," he grinned. "I need to stop hitting it off line.
"I was happy," McIlroy said of his adventure at the 14th on Friday. "That ball could have hit the tree and went anywhere. It hit up on the tree and ricocheted straight into his pocket. I just felt fortunate I was able to drop it there and make a par."
Editing by Gene Cherry