Rory McIlroy suffered another back nine meltdown to miss three cuts in a row for the first time for nearly four years when he crashed to a second round 79 as Tiger Woods surged into contention in the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village.
Just four strokes behind overnight leader Scott Stalling after a battling 71 in round one, world No 2 McIlroy went to the turn in two over when he three-putted the fourth and fluffed a bunker shot at the eighth before completely losing the plot on the back nine.
Playing in cold breezy conditions following a nearly two-hour weather delay in the morning, the 23-year old collapsed after racking up a sloppy double bogey seven at the par-five 11th, where he unwisely elected to play out of a lateral water hazard, failed to escape at the first attempt and then bunkered his fifth after a penalty drop.
“I just wanted to chip it out in the middle of the fairway, and as soon as I hit it, it obviously just hit the bank in front of me and came back in the water,” McIlroy explained. “Probably a bit of bad judgment because I thought I could just chip it back out.
“But if I had have examined the line maybe a little bit closer, I might have just taken a drop straight away. But yeah, that [hitting something] wasn’t the cause of it.”
Another shot went at the 13th, where he again three-putted from 55 feet, before he ran up another double bogey at the next when he pulled his drive into a stream, overshot the green with his third and took three more to get down after a semi-fluffed chip.
It is the first time he has miss three cuts in a row since the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles in August 2008 and with the US Open just a fortnight away, his latest failure could not have come at a worse time following his failures to make the weekend action in the Players Championship at Sawgrass and last week’s BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
“I got off to a decent start and had a couple opportunities there early for birdies and didn’t take them,” said McIlroy, who missed a couple of 11 footer for birdie on the first two greens. “I hit some good shots, it just seems like every time I go out there I make one or two big numbers and that sort of throws me, a couple doubles on the back nine. Just those big numbers at the beginning are killing me, and I just need to get those off the card and I’ll be okay.”
At the par-three 16th he had to holed a six footer just to avoid another three-putt bogey and while he finished with four straight pars he is now under pressure to perform in next week’s FedEx St Jude Championship in Memphis, which was a late addition to his schedule.
“I don’t feel like the scores are actually reflecting how I’m hitting the ball,” said McIlroy, who admittted he’d taken his eye off the ball before Wentworth. “I was able to string nine good holes together yesterday. I just need to keep working on it and try and string 18 good holes together and then try and string two days together and obviously three days and ultimately four.”
McIlroy won the Honda Classic in March to go to world No 1 for the first time and contended for the WGC-Cadillac Championship the following week. But he strruggled to 40th place on his return to action in the Masters at Augusta, made a play-off for the Wells Fargo Championship after a three-week break and then missed the cut in his next two starts.
The Ulsterman has spent time with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki during his frequent breaks and seen little of coach Michael Bannon. As a result he is now playing catch up ahead of his US Open title defence in two weeks and added next week’s FedEx St Jude Classic to his schedule.
He’s played just 14 competitive rounds in the last 12 weeks but believes that the work he’s been doing with Bannon over the past week is beginning to pay off. The questions remains, will it pay off in time for him to make a decent title defence at the notoriously tough Olympic Club.
“I hit some good shots out there,” he said. “I’m definitely hitting the ball better than I did last week, so I can see an improvement there. But I’ve still got a long way to go.”
Asked what he would do between today and the start of the FedEx St Jude in Memphis next week, McIlroy said: “I’m not sure yet. It’s supposed to be pretty cool here the next couple days. To be honest, I’m not sure. I haven’t thought that far ahead. Just getting over this, and the practice facilities here are pretty good, so I might stay around and hit some balls here.”
McIlroy’s demise was a huge contrast to an impressive performance by Woods, who birdied three of the first six to match clubhouse leaders Stallings (73) and Spencer Levin (72) on five under and then bounced back from a double bogey at the par-three 12th with birdies at the 15th and 16th to rejoin the lead.
South African Rory Sabbatini eventually fired a second successive 69 to lead on his own on six under par with Woods tied for second with Stallings and Levin, a shot further back.
“I’m pleased with the way I played today,” Woods said. “And yeah, I missed a couple out there, but overall I knew in these conditions to shoot something in the 60s was going to be a pretty good effort. Pleased with my round.”
McIlroy’s playing partner, world No 1 Luke Donald, shot a 73 to finish on level par and insisted that the Ulsterman would bounce back.
“You know, he’s obviously frustrated,” Donald said. “This game does that to you. But you know, just having watched Rory the last few days, he’s not far away.
“He made a couple of careless errors and made some big numbers on a couple holes that was the difference this week. I’m sure once he posts that one good round, that one solid run of maybe a couple rounds or a tournament, this will be a blur and he’ll forget about it quickly.”