This time it’s definitely more mental than dental. Rory McIlroy is lost on the golf course and almost certainly off it.
After watching the world No 2 shoot a 78 featuring a four-putt and two water balls, Memorial Tournament host Jack Nicklaus walked away from a brief encounter with his sometime protege and said: “Rory’s struggling. ‘It’s between my ears’, he just said to me.”
We’ve been here before, of course, and each time McIlroy has stormed back with a major championship winning performance.
Yet this time it’s not just the nuts and bolts of his golf game that are clunking - his ‘big miss’ to the right is costing him very dear. His off course troubles are playing a part too.
While he denied last night that his fraught management situation is to blame, the effort required to untangle himself from what is believed to be a five-year contract with Horizon Sports that’s just 18 months old and set up his own organisation could well be taking its toll.
Nicklaus hinted strongly when he slipped into the TV booth alongside Nick Faldo at Muirfield Village last night that worrying about what your agents are up to is not what a golfer needs two weeks before playing a US Open at a venue you haven’t even seen yet.
“It’s part of life and you do have to figure things out and figure out where you are going,” Nicklaus said when asked about the role that management can play in a player’s psyche.
“I never really paid a whole lot of attention to [business] early on. I really went on my own in 1970. I was only 30 years old when I formed my own group. I surrounded myself with people that I didn’t have to worry about, so I could go and just play golf and that’s what I had to do.”
Faldo has long been on the warpath over McIlroy’s move to Nike Golf this year and at the Masters he made it clear that he felt that signing a multi-million dollar club deal when you are 23 was always an unnecessary risk.
Chiming in on Nicklaus’s comments on agents, Faldo said: “Absolutely, you don’t want to be thinking about what they are doing or how they are doing it. The most important thing for a golfer is that window, for 20 years you hope. You’ve got enough to worry about.”
Nicklaus replied: “Yeah, you’ve got to go play.”
And it’s the play that’s the biggest worry.
McIlroy’s day began on a high note when he ran in a 23 footer on his opening hole, the 10th. But it all but ended when he four-putted the par-three 12th from 60 feet for a double bogey five.
After further bogeys at the 13th, 16th and 18th for an outward 40, he found water twice and made back to back bogeys at the second and third and the followed his second birdie of the day at the par-five fifth with a bogey at the seventh.
To add to his frustration, he missed from nine feet for birdie at the eighth and lipped out from inside five feet for birdie at the ninth. He hit just seven fairways, only 10 greens and had 33 putts
“I’m pretty frustrated,” McIlroy said. “I’m trying not to let it get to me. I don’t have any explanations for (the 78).”
Having missed the cut in the BMW PGA at Wentworth in horrible weather last week, McIlroy could not blame the elements this time. It was all down to confidence, both with his long swing and the putter.
As Shane Lowry headed off for his round and ended up matching McIlroy’s 78 by following a level par back nine at Muirfield Village with a horrific homeward 42, McIlroy tried to explain what’s going wrong.
“That’s sort of been my big miss all of this year is leaving that shot out to the right. It cost me today, obviously. I hit a few shots, especially around the front nine in the water and stuff. Yeah, it was just a bit of a struggle out there.”
His lip out at the last summed up his malaise, he agreed.
“Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, that’s sort of how it’s been. The game just isn’t all there at the minute. But I’m working hard and I’m trying to figure things out and hopefully they’ll come around soon.”
Asked about his short misses with the putter, he said: “I don’t know, the last four weeks have been the same. I’ve missed a lot of short putts. It’s probably lack of confidence more than anything else. A
“And those are the sort of putts that are important to keep the momentum of the round going. And they’re the putts that I’m not really making.”
Asked about his off course situation having an effect on his play, he said: “No. Once I’m here I’m focused on what I need to do. Right at the moment it’s not happening for me.”
That clashes with the observations of some experienced sets of eyes but McIlroy suggested that it was simply a case of a bad round getting away from him on a tough course.
Getting closer to the nub of the matter, he admitted that he had put too much pressure on his own shoulders to live up to his sensational feats of the latter half of last year when he followed a similar early season slump with five wins, including a second major.
“Coming off the back of last year, I was playing very well and winning a few times. And won a Major championship. Of course you want to come into this year and try and do the same sort of things. It just hasn’t really happened. So, yeah, I mean obviously I haven’t lived up to my own expectations this year.
“But I’m working hard to try to live up to them and working hard to try and get the game back to where I know it can be.”
Summing it all up, McIlroy said he was hitting too many shots right and then struggling to save hismelf with his putter.
“I’m pretty frustrated. I’m trying not to let it get to me. It is what it is. A few bad rounds of golf isn’t going to ruin anything. But I’d definitely like to start playing ‑‑ I felt like it was really coming around at Charlotte and TPC, I started playing some good golf. And last week, the Wentworth was bad conditions and stuff. And it was sort of a weird week.
“But I don’t really have many explanations for this. I felt like my game was good. I felt like I was coming in here and hitting the ball well. And I felt like I needed to hole some more putts and things would be okay. And I’m still sort of struggling on the greens a bit. And just missed a few too many shots out to the right and that cost me.”
Tied for 107th with Lowry on six over, a 67 today may be enough to make the cut.
Charl Schawartzel’s seven under 65 gave him a one shot lead over Scott Piercy as Tiger Woods battled to a 71. But there were other strugglers.
Luke Donald shot 73, Lee Westwood a 76 and Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts an 80.
Then again, 14 year old Chinese amateur Guan Tianlang managed a level par 72.