FEARS are growing for Rory McIlroy's golf game after he labelled himself "brain dead" and "unconscious" after slumping to a first round of 79 in the British Open at Muirfield, Scotland.
McIlroy has posted just one top-five finish in 2013 since his controversial multi-million-euro switch to Nike in January.
The 24-year-old confessed to feeling "a little lost" as he missed the cut in the Irish Open last month and again cut a downcast figure after he completed the back nine in 42 yesterday, including putting off the 15th green into a bunker.
"I don't know what you can do," the world No 2 said. "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 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."
Sources close to the Holywood, Co Down golfer have spoken to the Irish Independent of concern that the double Major winner "is in complete chaos" mentally as his golf game continues its sharp decline.
McIlroy walked off the course midway through the second round of his defence of the Honda Classic in March, saying he was not in the "right place mentally", and threw one club in frustration and leant on another so hard that he bent the shaft out of shape in the final round of the US Open last month.
Sources blame a number of factors for McIlroy's state of mind, after he decided to part company with his management team Horizon Sports Management, and his relationship with former tennis world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki has come under the spotlight, too.
Nick Faldo's ugly habit of speaking out against top golfers before the British Open – he did the same on Tiger Woods a few years back – has not helped either. He said this week that McIlroy should concentrate on his golf game – on and off the course – and that he should practice more.
People close to McIlroy wonder if he is spending too much time with Wozniacki and not enough time on the golf course.
"I'm not sure if Rory is getting the very best advice at this time, how can you explain such a disastrous state of mind? Here is a charming and charismatic young man, with a huge likeability. But the Rory you see now is a shell of himself," one said.
After missing the Irish Open cut, McIlroy spent time in London testing more Nike drivers and insisted he had found the right one, but other parts of his game remain well below par.
"I felt like I had made a lot of progress but then you shoot a round like this and you go back to the drawing board.
"I'm definitely underthinking on the golf course, maybe overthinking off of it."
He added: "It's just so brain dead. 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."
McIlroy tees off today at 2.45pm, and could well miss the cut at the year's third Major.
see sport: pages 70-71