Karl MacGinty: McILroy under a cloud
ONE corner of the practice ground at Lytham yesterday afternoon was occupied by two industrious Irishmen.
It's not unusual to see Padraig Harrington beating balls down the range at any time.
However, the intensity of Rory McIlroy's efforts under the all-seeing eye of swing coach Michael Bannon and his video camera suggested they were working on more than a simple tune-up.
This morning, both McIlroy and Harrington must rise earlier than expected of men of their stature for the third round of the British Open after both completed the first 36 holes of this championship in a disappointing two-over par.
Twelve strokes behind charmed American leader Brandt Snedeker, Dubliner Harrington hit the nail squarely on the head when he said: "At two-over, you're hoping for miracles on the weekend."
Without even a puff of wind to disperse the overpowering odour of chips and burgers, and the golf course playing soft and Lytham's greens receptive, this year's Open was never going to suit Harrington.
There had been encouraging signs of revival from the Dubliner as he carved out top-10 finishes at the Masters and US Open, but he's not yet sharp or confident enough to go out with all guns blazing, as Snedeker and Australian Adam Scott plainly did, and make flocks of birdies.
However, it should have suited McIlroy to a tee.
Okay, the pins were placed in devilish positions yesterday to protect the links from further mauling -- yet the McIlroy who romped to that record-breaking victory at the 2011 US Open and last March became the first Irish golfer to reach the top of the world rankings surely would have ripped this vulnerable links apart.
Instead, the 23-year-old was a shadow of his former self as he stumbled to a second round of five-over-par 75 yesterday.
The promise of a thrilling climax to Thursday's first-round 67, in which McIlroy picked up two birdies on the last three holes, was broken early yesterday as the Holywood star struggled to find a fairway.
"I wasn't committing to my tee-shots," he said afterwards. "I was in two minds at times about what shots to hit off the tees. That's something I'll need to improve on tomorrow, just really commit to it and try to get the ball in the fairway."
This lack of clarity and trust was clear as McIlroy hit his ball into the right rough on two and three, making bogey at the latter after pulling his second shot so far left, it landed on the fourth tee, startling Japan's Toshinori Muto as he prepared to hit.
McIlroy made bogey there, bounced back with a birdie at four and then dropped another shot at five after hitting his drive into the left rough and his approach into a difficult lie.
In all, he would forfeit five shots in four visits to Lytham's treacherous greenside bunkers yesterday -- though there were mitigating circumstances.
At nine, McIlroy's ball came to rest even tighter to the face than it had at five. He took two to get out and then two-putted from distance for a double-bogey five.
At 17, he landed in casual water which lay in so many of Lytham's traps after torrential overnight rain. With no option but to take a drop at the rear of the hazard, his ball then plugged on a downslope in the soggy sand -- nasty. McIlroy did not bemoan his luck, saying instead: "You just need to keep out of the bunkers, which is the whole idea. I don't see any problem with water in the bunkers. It's totally fine."
Plainly, it was far from fine for McIlroy to hit so many shots into Lytham's bottomless rough or strategically placed traps.
It was interesting when he said he had not felt any indication of the problems to come during his warm-up. "I felt like I was hitting the ball pretty good on the range," said McIlroy.
"I was losing a few to the left, so maybe that's why I was trying to protect that one and maybe why I missed a couple to the right early on."
Yet expert observers suggest this has been a recurring feature for McIlroy in recent times and, one suspects, was the reason he and Bannon were working so hard on the range yesterday afternoon.
Until it's fixed and McIlroy once again can perform with the trust and confidence that underpinned sensational performances at Quail Hollow and Congressional, he's unlikely to be able to thrill spectators in the way he did before.
Having found the route to the top of the world so wonderfully easy, McIlroy, in his own words, "took his eye off the ball", followed by a form slump from which he's found it particularly difficult to recover.
Inconsistency clearly sowed doubts within. McIlroy went from a downbeat weekend at the Masters to a sudden-death battle with Rickie Fowler at Quail Hollow.
He missed three cuts, at Sawgrass, Wentworth and Memorial, then stepped right to the brink of victory in Memphis before fate dealt him yet another blow.
Tied for the lead on the tee at 18, McIlroy hit his final tee-shot into the water, then missed a four-foot putt on his way to a double-bogey which dropped him into a tie for seventh -- five days later, his defence of the US Open title ended on Friday as he missed the cut at Olympic.
These are hard times, but overcoming mini-crises is the lot of the professional golfer, even one as gifted as McIlroy.
Despite relatively easy playing conditions, Lytham is too strategically challenging to permit a fightback as spectacular as McIlroy's weekend romp at Quail Hollow in 2010. Yet he'll do his confidence a world of good if he completes this championship with a flourish.
Harrington, meanwhile, needed the sea breezes to blow hard enough this week to make the Open a true test of endurance -- to be able to immerse himself fully in a grim fight for survival.
There was a jaunty swing in the Dubliner's step as he swept to two-under through eight yesterday, but his shoulders visibly slumped after an ugly bogey six at 11, where a decent three-wood approach leapt into a greenside trap and Harrington clipped his ball through the green.
Three more dropped shots in the final four holes for a second-round 72 left him "very disappointed" but insisting "it won't be for the lack of trying" if the miracle he needs doesn't arise today. In that regard, one expects the recently rededicated McIlroy to fight as hard as Harrington this weekend, starting today when the two are due to tee it up together at 10.25.
Live, BBC1/Setanta Ire, 10.0