WHEN Rory McIlroy spoke in the aftermath of the train wreck, it wasn’t so much a press conference as a therapy session.
McIlroy described himself as “brain-dead” and “unconscious” and said he might go to see a psychologist to help him get over the kind of mental problems that have beset his game.
His Open challenge – huh! – began with a 79. He was 7-over for his last nine holes, hit five fairways all day and took 34 putts.
This was a day to fight the destructiveness in his game but he didn’t do it. Whatever he was doing on the back nine, he sure as hell wasn’t “grinding” over those closing holes. Well before the misery had ended he had a resigned air, a Montyesque droop. His meltdown at Augusta in 2011 will never be matched in the annals of his worst experiences in a major championship, but his opening round at Muirfield is surely second. He shot 80 at St Andrews in 2010 but at least he had an excuse back then, a gale blasting his game to kingdom come. Yesterday he had nowhere to go in the blame game apart from looking deep inside himself, which he did with admirable honesty. The problem with McIlroy’s career at the moment, though, is that all of his most impressive performances are with a microphone at his mouth rather than with a club in his hand. He can talk about what is wrong but he is no closer to finding a way of putting it right.
“It’s all mental out there,” he said. “I just need to concentrate, but sometimes I feel like I’m walking around and I’m unconscious. I just need to think more. I’m trying to focus and trying to concentrate but I can’t really fathom it at the minute. It’s hard to stand up here and tell you guys what’s really wrong.”
We could ponder his problems until the cows come home but maybe the answer – or part of the answer – is staring him in the face. His equipment is a problem. His commitment may be, too. He’s under-golfed. He may have hit a million balls in practice but he had played two competitive rounds in three weeks before teeing it up yesterday morning – and it showed.
Phil Mickelson, his playing partner, played (and won) last week at Castle Stuart and that showed, too. Mickelson was ten shots better than McIlroy, his 2-under 69 being his best start to an Open in nine years.
Mickelson griped about the pin positions and said the championship committee need to “let go of their ego” when setting up the course for the second round. The greens – or the browns in some cases – are “dying” and the pins were “edgy, on the slopes and what not. . . joy would not be the word I’d use to describe it,” he remarked. Whatever about his complaints, the American has positioned himself nicely. McIlroy, on the other hand, is requiring his old brand of genius just to survive and it’s hard to see it happening. McIlroy has had only two sub-70 rounds in his last 16 and has missed the cut in two of his last five events – as well as being an irrelevance at Merion and at Augusta. This slump will end, but not anytime soon given the way he played here. You’d call it shocking but we’ve become almost desensitised to this kind of thing.
The first stirrings of trouble came on the par-3 4th, a green that lured McIlroy in with the promise of birdie and then suckered him into a three-putt across its glassy surface. Trouble, too, on the 5th, where he had to take a stance when playing out of a fairway bunker that wouldn’t have looked amiss had he been riding a skateboard. Another missed short putt cost him another bogey. He hit the turn at 1-over, having birdied the 7th, but the back nine was a horror show, a death by 42 blows.
On the 10th he missed from 7ft and took bogey, on the 11th he missed from 4ft for another bogey. On 12, he was in the fairway playing to a green with the flag on the left and half of Scotland to the right – and he went left, down a slope into the kind of place that gave him about a centimetre of green to work with. His pitch went up the bank and back down again, McIlroy staring at his ball all the while. He made double-bogey there – and on the 15th. Fifteen really needs some explaining, if only he could. With a putt of about 60ft and a bunker 30ft past the pin, McIlroy putted into the sand, the ball sliding beyond the hole and rolling on to the cusp of the bunker, before dropping in. There was a gasp at greenside.
Had he ever found a bunker with a putter before? “I don’t know,” he said. “Again, that’s just thoughtless. It’s just so brain-dead. I feel like I’ve been walking around out there like that for the last couple of months. I don’t quite know why.”
McIlroy was lost and almost embarrassed. Putting into a bunker! Is he thinking about other things out there? Is he thinking about how much he loves Nike’s money but how much he hates their equipment? Is he thinking about his girlfriend? Is he distracted by mush in his mind? “No, not at all, no, no,” he protested. “I’m fully focused on the golf, but it’s about being fully focused on each and every shot and what you want to do with the shot and visualisation and everything. It’s just something I’ve never experienced before. It’s a very alien feeling.”
So that was another double bogey and now, in a ridiculous irony, it was Mickelson who was teaching McIlroy how to play links golf, one reared on target golf and the other brought up on courses like this one, not that you would know it. Mickelson was grinding. Later he would say that he thought some of the pin placements were borderline daft but his body language never betrayed a sense of frustration. McIlroy’s, meanwhile, screamed “Get me out of here”. By the 17th green there is an electronic scoreboard and as McIlroy was having the devil’s own job of splashing out of a bunker away down the fairway his picture appeared on the board telling the galleries that he was six-over par and 107th in the field.
As McIlroy made his way to the green the board updated. He was 108th, then 109th, then 110th. One more bogey later and it was hardly worth checking. Then another bogey on 18, a white flag moment with a drive into the hay and a hack out and then a rushed and sloppy pitch that not only condemned him to a 79 but told you much about his state of mind. Not that he was in a mood to hide it.
“You’ve got to go back to the drawing board,” he said.
Would he look for help? Would he see Bob Rotella, golf’s psychological guru, or someone of his ilk? “I’ve worked with Bob before a little bit. It could be beneficial to see someone like that. We’ll see. I’m definitely under-thinking on the golf course and maybe over-thinking off it.”
Over-thinking and under-thinking. Brain-dead. Unconscious. Contemplating seeing a golf shrink. “I just need to go out in my second round and freewheel and try to make birdies and try to play with that little bit of whatever it is I have usually.”
Whatever that is, it is a world away from this. McIlroy doesn’t so much need a road map to locate his game right now, he needs a globe.