Statistically speaking, Rory McIlroy is still the No. 2-ranked golfer in the world.
But to watch the 24-year-old, two-time major winner slog through two brutal rounds at the British Open this week, you’d never know it.
While most of the attention at Muirfield has been on world No. 1 Tiger Woods and his quest for an elusive 15th major championship, his supposed rival McIlroy has been an absolute train wreck. On Friday, McIlroy followed a first-round 79 with a 4-over-par 75, putting him at 12-over for the tournament, not even within shouting distance of the cut line.
McIlroy hasn’t broken 70 since the second round of the Memorial — a span of eight rounds — and in majors this year, he’s been terrible. A third-round 79 doomed McIlroy at the Masters, where he tied for 25th, and a 14-over finish at the US Open — a tournament McIlroy won in 2011 — was good for a tie for 41st.
During his brief stay at the Open Championship, McIlroy’s driving was suspect at best, and his putting was equally woeful — his defining moment coming Thursday, when he lasered a putt past the hole, off the green and into one of Muirfield’s infamous bunkers. That only serves to fan flames that his recent change to Nike equipment is responsible for his wayward 2013 season.
In addition, after his first-round flop, McIlroy said he felt as though he was “unconscious” and “brain-dead” on the course, a stinging self-evaluation some took as a statement about his focus — a hot topic of discussion among those who feel he’s not working hard enough, or that his relationship with Caroline Wozniacki is affecting his game.
As for that clash with Woods, McIlroy has previously indicated that he doesn’t view the competition between the co-pitchmen as a rivalry, and if he keeps playing like he has, fans and media will certainly stop making the comparison. Woods is still not the Tiger of old, and he may never be, but right now, there’s not a reason in the world to view the world’s top two players as equals.
To be fair, however, Muirfield isn’t exactly your local muni, and several other elite players have been bested by the Scottish beast. That list includes world No. 3 and US Open champ Justin Rose (+10), who was as pedestrian as McIlroy, world No. 9 Luke Donald (+10), who shot 80 on Thursday, and fellow young stud Rickie Fowler (+12).
But there’s been something different about McIlroy — not just at Muirfield, but all season long — to the point that this doesn’t just feel like a fluke. Golf is as mental a game as there is, and McIlroy is so in his head that he can’t even begin to put together a decent round right now. It’s not his clubs and it’s not his girlfriend; it’s just Rory.
When you watch McIlroy play, it’s hard to convince yourself at times that he’s the same guy who won the PGA Championship just 11 months ago. But it’s the knowledge that he’s got major-winning ability in him that keeps you thinking and hoping that he’ll turn it around.
Last season McIlroy entered the Open Championship having missed three of four cuts, then finished in a tie for 60th at 8-over at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Many wrote him off then, too, and he responded by winning three of his final six tournaments — launching himself to the top of the PGA Tour money list — and carded five rounds over 70 in that span.
McIlroy was bad in Scotland this week — of that there is no dispute. And he’s been struggling to get his head on straight for months. But despite being out of contention from the get-go, McIlroy closed his final round with two birdies on the final three holes — a sign that the talent is still there and a glimmer of hope, perhaps, that all is not lost, and that his days out of the running may be over.