Listening to top players is almost as fascinating as watching them. Just make sure you have your antenna well-extended and your between-the-lines spectacles well-polished when trying to decipher the pronouncements of the pros.
Padraig Harrington and Rory McIloy opened their accounts in the FedEx St Jude Classic in Memphis with two under 68s to share seventh place, just two strokes behind leaders Jeff Maggert and John Merrick at TPC Southwind.
Yet they sounded only marginally happier than the third member of the all-Ireland threeball, Graeme McDowell, who birdied the last for a five over 75.
With the US Open looming, players are hyper-sensitive to a poor day yet McDowell was doing his best to sound upbeat, tweeting: “Played a little better than my score suggested today but lots of work to do. Great practice afterwards with Coach Cowen. #willbeready”
Whether McIlroy will be ready to make a strong defence of his US Open title is another question entirely. Adding Memphis to his schedule following back to back missed cuts was not a good sign. Missing a third successive cut last week, lit up the warning lamps on the dashboard.
Yet a two under 68 that could and have been a couple of shots lower - and higher considering the number of times he had to scramble for par - left the world No 2 in decent spirits last night.
“I felt like that was about the best round of golf I played in a while,” said McIlroy of what was his best round for over a month. “It could have been a lot better.
“Middle in the fairway, 3-under par, have a 9-iron into the green, par five.”
McIlroy was speaking about the par-five third, his 12th hole, where he hit a hige drive and then dumped his second in the water and walked off with a six after a missed four footer.
“Off to a decent start, definitely,” he said, despite following a birdie at the sixth with a bogey at the par-three eighth. “Two-under is a decent start. Definitely so. Lot of good signs out there.”
The truth is that McIlroy missed more fairways than he would have liked and knows that he must improve over the next three days to go to the Olympic Club with options. He’s struggling to get the club on plane and having coach Michael Bannon alongside him is a bonus.
“I’m getting the club in a better position,” he confessed. “From there you have a little bit of freedom. You’re not trying to protect against a bad shot. You’re trying to hit the shot you can see. I still feel like it’s improving but it’s getting there.”
Harrington also shot a two under 68 yet managed to sound more concerned about his mental game than his technique, a familiar trend in recent months.
“I got distracted a number of times with the wind,” said the Dubliner. “Just couldn’t commit on a lot of the shots because it was swirling into trees and making a lot of noise. Probably wasn’t affecting the shots as much as we were worrying about, anyway. There’s room for improvement the next couple of days.”
McDowell got off to a nightmarish start, slithering to three over par through six holes before dropping another shot with a three-putt from 70 feet at the 17th, his eighth.
Frequently outdriven by more than 40 yards by his playing partners, the 2010 US Open champion found water right of the green at the 406 yard 12th and got up and down for bogey as McIlroy and Harrington holed from around 15 feet for birdies.
McIlroy then birdied the long par three 14th with a 177 yard tee shot to nine feet to move into the top four. But it wasn’t long before McDowell was left playing catch up.
A double bogey six at the 15th, where he had 121 yards to the pin but found water short of the green with his approach and then missed an eight footer, was a body blow.
Harrington then got up and down from long range from a greenside bunker on the par-five 16th to join McIlroy on two under.
But it wasn’t long before McIlroy moved even closer to early leader Maggert as he reduced the first to a three wood, a wedge and a four foot putt to get to three under.
McDowell had to hole a five footer there just to remain at four over but by the third it was Harrington who headed the threeball.
While McDowell laid up and made a safe par-five, McIlroy and Harrington both went for the green in two and found the water on the fght.
McIlroy bogeyed, missing a four footer for par but Harrington showed his short game genius by chipping in from 78 feet for a birdie to get to three under.
None of the trio could make further in-roads on par over the final six holes.
Harrington three putted the par-three fourth, where McDowell failed to get up and down for par, and parred his way home.
McIlroy sank a 12 footer for his three there after coming up short of the green but followed a birdie three at the sixth with a bogey at the eighth.
As for McDowell, the Portrush man bogeyed the seventh but finished well with a birdie three at the last.
He’s still three strokes outside the top 70 and ties who will make the cut. Work to do, as he said. Work he’ll be hoping to carry out on the course rather than the range.