Two weeks after declaring himself “lost out there” after a missed cut at the Irish Open, McIlroy downgraded his status to “brain dead” after an opening 79 in the British Open at Muirfield. Watching the world’s No. 2 golfer going through the motions on the world’s most perfect links was both shocking and unsettling.
So imagine how it felt for McIlroy.
“It’s a very alien feeling,” McIlroy said of a round that included a few three-putts and one instance of putting into a bunker. “It’s something I’ve never felt before.”
Until this season, that is. McIlroy has been struggling all year to find the form that vaulted him to No. 1 in the world last summer when he won the PGA Championship at Kiawah in a romp. But little has gone right for him since the calendar turned. His total equipment change to Nike didn’t go smoothly, he walked off mid-round in Florida, he changed his management agency again and he mangled his 9-iron during a pique of frustration at Merion.
All in all he’s 24-over par in majors and he’s only played nine rounds.
The test that a baked and borderline setup at Muirfield presented was too much for McIlroy’s fragile psyche to handle Thursday.
“It’s just so brain dead,” he said. “Seriously, I feel like I’ve been walking around out there like that for the last couple of months. I’m trying to get out of it. I just don’t quite know why. ... I’m definitely under-thinking on the golf course, maybe over-thinking it off of it.”
McIlroy seemed in fine spirits before the British Open started and looked ready for a big day during a morning that presented the best weather anyone could hope for in Scotland. But then he lipped out a short birdie chance on the third hole, three-putted from close range on the fourth and put himself in a bad spot to make bogey on the relatively easy par-5 fifth.
He made the turn in reasonable shape at 1-over before it all unraveled with a back-nine 42 on a course that Phil Mickelson said was approaching “unplayable” if the winds kicked up any more.
“It just sort of got away from me,” he said. “It’s strange, I mean, I wish I could stand up here and tell you guys what’s wrong or what I need to do to make it right. Because I feel like I’ve got the shots, it’s just a matter of going through the right thought process to hit them and that’s something that I obviously haven’t been doing recently.
“I mean, I don’t know what you can do. You’ve just got to try and play your way out of it. But it’s nothing to do with technique. It’s all mental out there. And then I just need to concentrate, obviously. But sometimes I feel like I’m walking around out there and I’m unconscious. I just need to try to think more. I’m trying to focus and trying to concentrate. But, yeah, I can’t really fathom it at the minute, and it’s hard to stand up here and tell you guys what’s really wrong.”
Mickelson clearly wasn’t comfortable trying to provide an answer by analyzing McIlroy’s performance. He paused a full 10 seconds before offering a diplomatic assessment of the Northern Irishman’s 79 in a group where Mickelson shot 69 and rookie Hideki Matsuyama had 71.
“You know, we’ve all been there where you make a bogey or so, and you just want to try to get that birdie back,” Mickelson said. “And sometimes in trying to get it back you put it in a spot that you make another bogey. I’ve been there a number of times. It’s happened to me a bunch throughout my career, especially in major championships. And he had a couple of shots that had a chance to get close to the hole and they ended up in a really bad spot.”
More than anything, McIlroy is just in a bad place right now, and crusty old Muirfield is not the venue to provide a tonic. Not with a wicked setup in trying conditions, with hole locations set on such precarious knolls that Ian Poulter tweeted “needs a windmill & clown face” to wrap up the proper tableau on the 18th green.
What McIlroy needs is a decent score to put a happy face on a game that has slipped out of his full control this season.
Tied for 134th with routine afternoon winds and another baked out day on deck, the challenge grows more immense as he heads toward his PGA defense in the season’s final major.
“I want to try to be here for the weekend,” McIlroy said.
“But the thing that I need to do (Friday) is just go out there and freewheel it and try and make birdies and try and play with that little bit of whatever it is I have usually.”
Whatever it was McIlroy had last season, he’ll need to snap out of zombie mode to find it.