Relapse at the Masters for Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy still a fan favourite, even when he isn't performing. Picture: Getty
Rory McIlroy still a fan favourite, even when he isn't performing. Picture: Getty
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THE fans still love him, but McIlroy’s bad shots and decisions won’t win him more majors

He’s still a big hit at the box office. Spending just a short time in the massive crowd (admittedly for the first match out) following him yesterday proved that. The Americans love him. Perhaps it’s partly down to “Rory” rolling off the tongue. It’s definitely down to the way he destroyed fields in becoming a two-times major champion at the age of 22.

Put simply, however, Rory McIlroy needs to get his finger out because there’s a danger of him not fulfilling his enormous talent to the full. He came here this week with high hopes of adding The Masters to those US Open and US PGA Championship victories within the last three years. Being the last man to scrape into the final two rounds, holing a knee-trembling four-footer for par at the 18th hole to do so as the sun started to sink in Georgia on Friday evening, certainly wasn’t part of the plan.

It left McIlroy heading out yesterday as the odd man out among the 51 qualifiers. He could have played on his own. He was encouraged not to, though, by the Green Blazer brigade and had Jeff Knox, a local who is also a member at Augusta National, as his marker for the third round.

McIlroy would have lost 4 and 3 to the two-times Georgia Mid-Amateur champion if they’d been playing a match. His one-under 71, which included three birdies in the last four holes and got him back to three-over for the event, was also one more than Knox’s approximate score.

“It was a nice way to finish but I wanted something better,” admitted McIlroy of a round that took just over three hours. “I see Gary Woodland is going well (the American started birdie-eagle to be out in 30) but it is always going to be hard given how firm the greens are and how the course is set up.”

Looking for a fast start – explosive, more like, given that he was trailing the halfway leader, Bubba Watson, by 11 shots – McIlroy birdied the long second only to then play the third, the shortest par-4 on the course albeit a tricky one, in the careless way that has plagued him this season.

His tee shot was just off the fairway – the first mistake around here – but he still had ample green to work with. His pitch was way too aggressive, though, and cost him a needless bogey. “A five from nowhere,” groaned one fan in disgust.

It’s exactly the sort of thing that led to McIlroy, the world No.1 just 13 months ago, second coming in here last year but now ranked ninth, heading into the season’s opening major without a victory when he could easily have had three under his belt. The HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship should have fallen to him and would have but for a two-shot penalty. The Dubai Desert Classic could have fallen to him as well on the European Tour.

It was the way he imploded in the Honda Classic on the PGA Tour, though, that really set the alarm bells ringing. How he let that one slip from his grasp was almost as bad as squandering a four-shot lead here in the final round here in 2011.

That left scars. Now he’s got fresh ones from this year’s second round. In that, he buried his tee shot deep into the bushes behind the fourth. It was almost out of the premises and that takes a bit of doing on this piece of property. He was also in the azaleas at the 13th, though on that occasion, admittedly, it was partly caused by an unlucky bounce off a sprinkler head. Bad shots and bad decisions are hurting him.

Questions are beginning to be asked about his caddie, JP Fitzgerald, whose former employers include Ernie Els. Is he giving Rory the best advice? That certainly didn’t seem to be the case with the 5-wood that proved far too much club in that costly episode at the fourth, though McIlroy claimed it was caused by a “massive wind switch”.

Fitzgerald certainly didn’t do his job properly when McIlroy suffered that costly penalty in Abu Dhabi for having his foot touching a white line after taking relief off a spectator walkway. If Dave Renwick, who was caddying for Ricardo Gonzalez in the same group, spotted it from 40 yards away, then why didn’t McIlroy’s bagman when it was right under his nose?

One seasoned Rory follower even goes as far back as 2008 – the start of his professional career – to put JP under the microscope, blaming the caddie for him missing out on a then maiden European Tour title in the European Masters in Switzerland. It’s not all down, however, to the man carrying the arrows. It’s also due to the man firing them.

In his five appearances here before this one, McIlroy’s best finish was tied for 15th, his eventual position after that spectacular back-nine blow-up three years ago. It was evident in the company of Knox that he perhaps hasn’t figured out exactly how you need to plot your way around this Alister MacKenzie-designed gem. “He’s getting schooled on how to play this golf course,” observed one observer yesterday.

McIlroy admitted that himself, though not quite to such a fine point. “I got off to a good start, picking up a birdie at the second, but then put my ball in a couple of wrong positions going into greens,” he said. His target now? “My best finish is 15th, which is nothing to shout about. “But if I could achieve that with a score tomorrow in the mid to high-60s, that would be nice and I’d go on from there. It’s not what I was looking for at the start, I know, but I’d take it after the way things have gone over the last couple of days.”

Especially with Tiger Woods not here for the first time since 1995 and Phil Mickelson having missed just his second cut in 22 starts, the event needs those Rory roars echoing around here today.