independent

Friday 18 April 2014

McIlroy: I feel like I am brain-dead

Ulsterman has a nightmare round as he grapples with mental crisis

Rory McIlroy had a miserable day at Muirfield yesterday finding a bunker early on in his round

CONCERNS for Rory McIlroy were magnified intensely at the British Open more by the words he spoke in the wake of yesterday's nightmare first-round 79 at Muirfield than any of the shambolic shots he played.

It was shocking enough to see golf's World No 2 hit a putt right through the green and into a bunker at 15, or to find McIlroy's name alongside that of 'retired' Tour golfer Nick Faldo on eight-over-par.

Still, the 24-year-old's brave attempts to explain the horrors which befell him on a brutal day on the links painted a grim picture of McIlroy's muddled mental state as he grapples with the greatest crisis of his career.

The Holywood star sounded almost like a heavyweight boxer dazed by a pounding from Wladimir Klitschko's iron fists than a professional golfer when he said: "Sometimes I feel like I'm walking around out there and I'm unconscious.

Monsoon

"I can't really fathom it at the moment, and it's hard to stand up here and tell you what's really wrong. I know I have the shots and I know I'm capable of hitting them. It's a matter of being in the right place mentally to do it."

Even at his best, one suspects McIlroy would be hard-pressed to shoot a score low enough in today's second round to make the halfway cut on a golf course playing so marble-hard and ferociously fast, even a monsoon overnight might not douse its fire.

The remarkable 66 which gave ever-steady American Zach Johnson, most famous for winning the 2010 US Masters, a one-stroke lead yesterday did more to underline McIlroy's shortcomings than offer him real hope of a fightback, as Muirfield threatens to get even tougher.

The presence of 1998 Open champion Mark O'Meara in the chasing pack after a four-under-par 67, or the defiant 68 posted by evergreen Spanish veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez, also emphasised what was possible with a cool head and patience, the latter a quality McIlroy sorely lacks right now.

The Ulsterman's playing companion Phil Mickelson overcame a mid-round hiatus of his own to post a 69. Alongside Tiger Woods at two-under-par at the close of play, Mickelson now appears to be Tiger's greatest rival as the World No 1 bids to end his five-year drought at the Majors this weekend.

There have been several examples this year of McIlroy's pain and frustration as he went from the pinnacle of world golf at the turn of the year to paradise lost. We've seen McIlroy walk off the golf course in angst (or was it agony with a troublesome wisdom tooth?) at February's Honda Classic and even angrily mutilate a club on Sunday at last month's US Open.

Yet the crushing collapse of his game and his spirit on the back nine yesterday was troubling, as McIlroy slumped to his equal-worst score against par at a Major championship.

McIlroy shot an eight-over 80 when he imploded on Sunday at the 2011 Masters and again during the weather-beaten second round in 2010 at St Andrews, which remains his worst round score at the British Open.

No question, his controversial change of clubs from Titleist to Nike contributed to McIlroy's loss of momentum, form and confidence in 2013, though that no longer appears to be his greatest problem – especially now that his new club manufacturers have produced a prototype driver to satisfy him.

Instead, McIlroy's biggest problem right now would appear to be a lack of competitive golf. He played just two tournament rounds in nearly five weeks between the US and British Opens ... both on the Monty course at Carton, as he missed the cut at last month's Irish Open.

No matter how intensively McIlroy practised over the past fortnight, inevitably it left him ill-prepared for a Major championship in gruelling conditions on one of the world's fairest, yet most challenging links.

Given the damage Tiger's myopic devotion to golf ultimately helped wreak upon his private life, McIlroy's enduring relationship with Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki is uplifting indeed.

Yet it's clear that, in the best interests of his golf, McIlroy must strike a better balance between the time they spend together and his competitive schedule. On yesterday's evidence, it clearly was essential for him to play another event after Carton if he was to have any realistic chance of competing at the British Open.

McIlroy didn't play badly on his opening few holes at this championship, but a fissure began to show in his putting at the fourth as he stumbled to his first three-putt bogey of the day. In all, McIlroy three-stabbed three times, racking up 34 putts as his Nike Method turned cold enough to give him frostbite.

The lowest moment of a torrid day came at 15, where McIlroy registered the second of two awful double-bogey sixes by hitting his putt from the front fringe of the green and into an impossible lie in a bunker at the back.

On that occasion, he sent his ball thundering past the pin, which was 80 feet away, and looked on in horror as it rolled another 20 feet into perdition.

Confirming he'd never putted into a bunker before, McIlroy summarised his error by saying: "Again, that's just thoughtless. It's just so brain dead. Seriously, I feel like I've been walking around like that for the last couple of months."

Though he missed nine of 14 fairways and found just 10 greens in regulation, McIlroy said his technique was not at fault and insisted he wasn't bothered by matters beyond the golf course, including his recent decision to split with his backroom team at Horizon and set-up a new management company.

"No, not at all, no, no," he stressed. "It's not that at all. I'm fully focused on my golf but I just need to try and think more out there and get fully focussed on each and every shot, what I want to do with it, visualisation and everything.

"This is a very alien feeling and something I've not experienced before," added McIlroy, admitting he may seek the advice of a sports psychologist.

"I've worked with Dr Bob Rotella before a little bit and it could be beneficial to see someone like that again. We'll see."

After irritating back-to-back bogeys on four and the long fifth, McIlroy made a lovely birdie two at seven and was quite happy going through the turn.

Yet two stinging bogeys at 10 and 11, where he three-putted once again, plainly set his blood boiling and ill-advised aggression began to sneak into his game, dangerous on a course as threatening as this.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at 12 when he pulled his approach into a swale left of the green on his way to an ugly six. McIlroy, who readily conceded this was another serious mental error, was chastened as his first attempt to crest the steep slope to the green rolled back to his feet.

"I felt like I struck the ball okay," he said before departing. "So long as I can somewhat get my mind in a better place, I can go out there and try and shoot a good score tomorrow!" Easier said than done, one suspects.

British Open,

Live, Setanta Irl, BBC 2, 9.0

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