McIlroy's sunny disposition being tested to its limits
British Open offers struggling star hope of salvation after stormy year, but nobody will be holding their breath, writes Ewan Murray
If there is an element of salvation to be taken by Rory McIlroy, it appears in the favourable weather that East Lothian is enjoying. McIlroy, after all, has made little secret of the fact he struggles in inclement conditions. That much was again clear on his most recent appearances in Europe, at the BMW PGA Championship and the Irish Open. Not that things have fared much better for McIlroy in the warmth of the United States, it must be said.
The harsh reality for McIlroy is that, for now, he must be grateful for small mercies such as the fine weather set for this week's Open Championship. The second-ranked player in the world may hold the same position in the betting markets at Muirfield, but there is a lack of available evidence supporting such prominence. The venue itself is hardly forgiving of golfing works in progress.
McIlroy is unrecognisable from the player who birdied five holes in succession in Dubai eight months ago to end 2012 on the ultimate high. He was the best golfer in the world and challenging – toppling – Tiger Woods at the summit of the game.
When discussing McIlroy's subsequent struggles, which culminated in an admission that he felt "lost" before missing the cut at Carton House, it must be recalled he was not in a particularly happy place a year ago either. McIlroy bemoaned inconsistency after failing to properly challenge for the Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes.
He admitted he was low on confidence and "struggling" before offering a typically positive longer-term outlook.
"I think the thing for me is to stay patient," McIlroy said last summer. "If it doesn't happen over the next couple of weeks, no big deal. It's a 20-year career, so I'm not going to get too wound up just over a few weeks. I've got to keep working away, plugging away, working hard and on the right things and eventually it will come around."
McIlroy's rousing response included a famous win at the US PGA Championship, a key involvement in Europe's Ryder Cup win and claiming that Dubai title from under the nose of Justin Rose. McIlroy was the leading money winner on both sides of the Atlantic by the time the season ended.
Twelve months on, patience is as vital to McIlroy as ever. His frustration has been clear, so much so at the US Open that he threw one club and fatally damaged another. In the background, a break-up with his management company, worth millions of pounds in a contractual sense, is still unresolved. "Rory's Rory and I would not be too worried about him at all," said Shane Lowry. "He didn't get to world No 1 by not being a great golfer. He has not done well recently but he'll definitely be back soon."
Few people would reasonably doubt he will, indeed, be back but the issue is when. And whether 2013 can already be considered a write-off year.
In a technical sense, McIlroy's swing is such that when off-plane, as it has been on so many occasions this season, he will block shots right or pull left. The most stern warning over the dangers associated with McIlroy's lucrative and high-profile switch to Nike equipment came from Nick Faldo who, to date, has been proven entirely correct.
The 55-year-old Faldo, who won three Opens (including memorably taking the Claret Jug at Muirfield in 1992) and three Masters titles, has insisted that McIlroy "messed with a winning formula. I hope he hasn't gone too far that it's damaged his confidence."
Jay Townsend, now a golf commentator, previously riled the Northern Irishman by questioning the work of his caddie, JP Fitzgerald. Townsend believes McIlroy's Nike switch had a more meaningful impact than the 24-year-old had expected. "I think it is difficult to change the ball and the club at the same time because you don't have a known value," explained Townsend. "When you are doing any science project, you always have something with a known value and you change things to see how they react to that.
"To do it all at once was a little difficult and I think if he were to do it again, he would probably do things a little differently."
It is too late now for McIlroy to change path. He will make a return to form, but it would rank as a surprise if that happened at Muirfield this week.