After the bitter disappointment of yet another missed cut – his fourth in five tournaments – Rory McIlroy faces a huge test of character in the coming weeks.
A year ago the young Northern Irishman was leaving the rest for dead as he headed towards US Open glory. On Friday night in San Francisco he was simply leaving.
Rounds of 77 and 73 meant McIlroy exited on 10 over par, having taken 19 more strokes than he did on the first two days in Washington.
That spoke volumes about the relative difficulty of the Olympic Club and Congressional, where he went on to win by eight with a record 16-under total.
But, having crashed out early as well from Sawgrass, Wentworth and Muirfield Village, the next month takes on huge importance.
“I felt I really turned a corner last week [he was seventh in Memphis and shared the lead until a closing double bogey], but this course is so punishing,” said the world No.2.
“Obviously I’m disappointed. It wasn’t the way I wanted to play, but, to be honest, overall I don’t feel like I played that badly.
“You really have to be so precise out there. We’re just not used to playing this sort of course week-in, week-out.
“You have to adapt and adjust and I wasn’t able to do that very well.”
Asked how humbling the past month and a bit has been McIlroy replied: “It has been. You realise you’ve just got to keep working hard – it doesn’t come easy to you all the time.
“But I still see enough good stuff and that gives me hope that it’s not very far away.”
After a week off he returns in the Irish Open at Royal Portrush, where he set an amazing course record of 61 in 2005 when just 16.
A fortnight after that comes The Open at Royal Lytham – and remember last year he said after finishing 25th at Sandwich: “I’m not a fan of golf tournaments where the outcome is predicted so much by the weather. I just play better and my game is more suited to calm conditions. I’m looking forward to getting back to America.”
World No.1 Luke Donald was another to crash out on Friday and he was one worse than McIlroy on 11 over. At least he had the announcement of an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours to remind him of the good times. “I am truly honoured to be awarded an MBE by Her Majesty – particularly in her Jubilee year,” Donald said. “Both 2011 and 2012 have been very significant years for me, both personally and professionally, and I am touched that my accomplishments have been recognised in this way.”
Earlier this week he joked that he was unsure the Queen would be watching the US Open, “but if she is hopefully I’m one of her favourites”.
His search for a first major goes on, however.
At the other end of the leaderboard, David Toms moved into a share of the second-round lead after carding scores of one-under-par 69 and 70 to join fellow Americans Tiger Woods (70) and Jim Furyk (69).
For Toms, Ryder Cup incentive provided just the spark he needed to move into contention. Having missed the cut in his last two PGA Tour starts, he was determined to shine while playing with US Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III for the first two rounds at the Olympic Club.
The 45-year-old certainly succeeded. “I played with him [Love] last week the first two days in Memphis and played absolutely awful on a golf course where I have played pretty well,” said Toms, who has been on three US Ryder Cup teams.
“So that was really part of my goal this week, to play a little better in front of our Ryder Cup captain, and I was able to do that.”
On a breezy day of bright sunshine at Olympic where scoring was difficult on a hilly layout running fast and firm, the steady Toms offset two bogeys with two birdies to post a one-under total of 139. “Leading or being tied for the lead in the golf tournament, in the US Open, is great,” said the 13-times PGA Tour winner whose only major victory came at the 2001 PGA Championship.
“But to be able to turn it around and play really solid golf after the way I played in the last couple of tournaments has been nice.”
Toms had missed the cut at the Colonial Invitational and St Jude Classic in his two previous starts before making the most of fast-running conditions at Olympic which have certainly helped his medium-length hitting off the tee.
Elsewhere, with Donald and McIlroy both missing the cut, Lee Westwood had the chance to go back to the top of the rankings and the Englishman made a bright start to his third round. He sank a seven-foot putt on the 499-yard par-four fifth and then birdied again at the driveable 268-yard seventh. At that point the world No.3 stood three over par and was only four behind overnight leaders Woods, Furyk and Toms, who had yet to tee off.
Scotland’s Marc Warren, making his major debut, started and finished the outward half of his third round with double bogeys. With seven to play he was on eight over.