Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy speaks with his caddie JP Fitzgerald during the second round of the British Open Golf Championship at Royal Birkdale,, Southport, Friday July 21, 2017. (Richard Sellers/PA via AP)
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July 21, 2017

SOUTHPORT, England (AP) Rory McIlroy didn't need another scolding from his caddie or a reminder of what he had to do. By the time he arrived for his second round on a blustery day at Royal Birkdale he had a good idea what this British Open is all about, and somewhat of an idea what he is all about.

The day before, caddie J.P. Fitzgerald had to give him a good talking to on the sixth tee to remind him about both.

''You're Rory McIlroy, what are you doing?'' Fitzgerald said after his man had made such a mess of his first round that it seemed inevitable he would be jetting back to Northern Ireland before the weekend began.

If McIlroy had to be reminded, so did everyone else. The player going through the motions on the front nine Thursday looked nothing like the winner of four major championships, including this very Open.

Now, suddenly, he does. And that might make things a lot more interesting on Sunday in the 146th Open.

''To be in after two days and be under-par for this championship after the way I started, I'm ecstatic with that,'' McIlroy said.

That showed, as McIlroy twirled a club on the 17th hole after hitting a long iron to the green. It showed as he seemed to bounce down the 18th fairway.

No more hanging his head. No more blank stares after wayward shots.

The game is now officially on for the world's former No. 1 player.

''I just had to turn it around,'' McIlroy said. ''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.''

What was in McIlroy's head before that is a matter of some conjecture. He's played erratically all year, struggling with his driver and his putter and missing cuts in three of the last four tournaments.

He admitted on Thursday he felt ''nervous ... anxious, timid'' teeing off with Dustin Johnson and Charl Schwartzel, but even that seemed a vague excuse for a player of his stature making bogeys in five of his first six holes.

But the scolding from Fitzgerald found its intended target. McIlroy, down 10 shots at one point, played 4 under the rest of the way in to salvage a 1-over-71 that left him six shots off the first round lead.

Then he turned in a gritty 68 on Friday to get within five shots of Jordan Spieth - with just a handful of players in between - in a tournament that is still there for the taking.

''They're both huge rounds for very different reasons,'' McIlroy said. ''But this was definitely the round that got me back into the championship.''

If so, a lot of the credit goes to Fitzgerald. The player-caddie relationship is always a fragile one, but McIlroy has had Fitzgerald on the bag his entire pro career and is very comfortable with his fellow Irishman.

Fitzgerald is also comfortable enough to speak up when needed and smart enough to know when that is.

''He does it quite often, it's just whether it penetrates my head is a different thing,'' McIlroy said. ''He tries to keep me as positive as he possibly can. And sometimes I get down on myself. He knows what to say out there and what not to say. And he definitely said the right thing yesterday when I needed it.''

If McIlroy needed some more help, he got it by being on the right side of the draw. He played in the afternoon Thursday when the wind had subsided some, and in the morning on Friday, finishing just before the wind picked up and heavy rain came down.

Those are the kind of breaks that win major championships, especially in one where the weather is often a factor like the British Open. But McIlroy will need more than a few breaks to catch Spieth, who is playing with the confidence of a man who knows this is his tournament to lose.

The fact remains that despite McIlroy's improved mood, he's playing inconsistently. Though he was just 1-over in the wind on the back nine in his second round, he didn't have a putt for birdie until the 17th hole and had to rely on his short game to finish off his round.

That led one sympathetic golf journalist to suggest to him he must be proud that he fought back and showed true character.

''It's not like I went through a war,'' McIlroy said. ''Just golf.''

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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