Rory McIlroy suffered a dose of the Bay Hill Blues in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and now faces a struggle to make the cut and get his game sharp with just 20 days to go to the Masters.
Having closed with a two over 74 to lose the WGC-Cadillac Championship last week, the world No 2 posed more question marks about his game when he hit just four fairways and only eight greens in regulation, finding water three times as he made two double bogeys and opened with a three over par 75 in Orlando.
Ironically given his occasional struggles with the blade, it was his putting that saved him from a more damaging score as he holed four par putts of between eight and 25 feet and still ended the day tied for 107th and three shots outside the projected cut mark.
To add to the sensation that he's well short of the form required to win the Masters, he's nine strokes behind world No 3 Jason Day, who made an eagle and six birdies in a 66 to lead by one from fellow Australians Adam Scott and Marc Leishman, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and Americans Brendan Steele and Troy Merrit.
Wearing green, presumably to make St Patrick’s day, there was no Irish luck for the Holywood star, who drove out of bound at the first and opened with a double bogey six — the first of a series of shots that went left, leading to over correction and further misses to the right.
"I kept missing shots left and I tried to correct it too much and then I started missing them right," McIlroy said before heading to the range. "I need to go on to the range and work on it a little bit and see if I can figure it out.
"Felt like I grinded okay there and I scrambled a good about it. I had some good things on the back-9. It probably could have been a few worse. I end up shooting this."
The tee shot that went left on the first was shock to the system and McIlroy never really recovered though he showed plenty of fight.
"I get some good work done on the range tonight and come out tomorrow and play a good round of golf to get myself into the red numbers, at least I'll be here for the weekend, I can make a charge," he said in typically bullish fashion.
Had he not got up and down from 200 yards for par at the third, hitting four iron to 18 feet after driving into the lake, he might have left himself even more to do to make the cut today.
A brilliant, two-putt birdie at the sixth got him back on track but he then came up short in water with his approach to the eighth and made another double bogey after a seven footer slipped by.
He needed to hole a 25 footer for par at the ninth after another wayward tee shot just to turn in 39.
And while he missed a few putts on the back nine, it was the blade that saved him from an even more gory fate.
After holing an eight footer for par at the 11th and then clawing a shot back with a tidy, chip and putt birdie at the 12th, he found sand off the tee and then through the back of the green at the 13th and bogeyed again.
He had to hole a 15 footer for par at the 215-yard 14th just to remain at three over. But look on the Ulsterman’s face clearly showed that he was praying to get home without doing further damage.
A hooked approach to the par-five 16th ended up in water once more but the got up and down from 77 yards for his par-five, holing a good six or seven footer.
"Only 212 to the front of the green," McIlroy said of the four iron shot that ended up wet. "I'm starting at the right hand bunker, 20, 25 yards right of the pin. If it turns it turns, great. If it doesn't I'll either be in the front bunker and have a lot of room to work for my up and down for birdie. The thing started on a good line. Turned so much. Obviously.
"[It was a] 4-iron. I get so much under it and went with the slope. I haven't hit a shot like that in a long time. Again, it's a matter of getting on the range and working on it."
It’s far to early for panic but McIlroy will be looking to play four rounds in Orlando with just the WGC-Dell Match Play defence to go before Augusta.
While Day was brilliant and Scott scrambled well to shoot a five under 67, Graeme McDowell struggled to hit greens but chiseled out a one under 71 that could have been even better had it not been for an ugly, double bogey seven just four holes from home.
The 2010 US Open winner birdied the 10th and then followed a three-putt bogey at the 15th with a two-putt birdie at the par-five 16th and another at the tough 18th, courtesy of a 176-yard approach to just seven feet.
Out in two under, the 36-year old from Portrush found water off the tee at the third and dropped a shot but he birdied the par-five fourth and then drained a 36 footer at the fifth to move into the top 15 before his daring, 257-yard approach to 555-yard par-five sixth ended up in the lake and he made a double bogey.