(Eds: With AP Photos.)By JIM LITKEAP Sports Columnist
A year after posting the lowest score ever to win the U.S. Open and being anointed the latest ”next Tiger Woods,” Rory McIlroy won’t be around for the weekend to defend his title.
He shot 77-73 at The Olympic Club and looked like Woods all right – the one who played listlessly en route to missing the cut at Congressional in 2011. And just like Woods a year ago, there was no place to hide afterward.
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Some 15 minutes after completing his round, McIlroy wolfed down a sandwich hunched over in front of his locker, still wearing his hat and golf shoes. He checked his phone. Next he autographed some posters. Then he packed his clubs.
Ten minutes passed, then 15. He changed his shoes and checked his phone again. A day earlier, McIlroy waited out his questioners and said nothing. This time, convinced he was cornered, McIlroy finally turned and walked down the row of lockers to where a handful of reporters waited between him and the clubhouse exit.
”Yeah, obviously disappointed,” he said. ”It wasn’t the way I wanted to play.”
On his final hole Friday, already 9 over with the cut projected at 8, McIlroy hit his tee shot on the par-3 to within 15 feet. Then he ran the birdie try 3 feet past the hole. He looked at that one, took a half-hearted stab and missed it coming back.
”I didn’t really take my time over it,” he said. ”So if the cut is 9 I won’t be feeling too good on the way home.”
It was the punctuation mark on what’s been a whirlwind year, and a humbling six weeks or so of maddeningly inconsistent golf. McIlroy flung a club in anger at Wentworth three weeks ago, missed the cut and then admitted he hadn’t practiced as much or as hard as he should have. For a kid raised in Northern Ireland by working-class parents who juggled two and three jobs at a time so he could chase the dream of becoming a pro, it was quite an admission.
”I’ve taken my eye off the ball,” is how McIlroy put it.
Small wonder. Beyond the demands of his long-distance romance with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, McIlroy has shed his former manager, adopted a schedule that is heavy on high-paying events and focused on the majors – a la Woods – and light on almost everything else. For a while, the changes seemed like a good fit.
McIlroy started the year with a win and nothing worse than a tie for fifth in his first five events. In his next five, he sandwiched three missed cuts in a row between ties for second and seventh. Last week at Memphis encapsulated his season so far: He had a two-stroke lead after four birdies through 11 holes in the final round. Then he skidded to two bogeys and a double at No. 18 after hooking his 3-wood off the tee into the water.
For all that, the kid is almost too good and too young to know what a drought feels like.
”I just realized that you just got to keep working hard. … that it doesn’t come easy to you all the time,” he said. ”It hasn’t been the greatest run over the last sort of six weeks or whatever it is. But as I said, I still see enough good stuff in the rounds that it does give me hope it’s not very far away.”
Most everything else McIlroy said over the next few minutes was how hard Olympic had been set up. ”It’s just such a demanding golf course and just punishes the slightest shot that’s off line, or that’s maybe not the right distance, or whatever, and that’s how I feel.”
To his credit, he also cut himself off just short of an extended whine.
”It’s been set up tough,” he said quietly, ”but it still gives you opportunities.”
A reporter asked McIlroy whether he would play the Irish Open in two weeks.
”Yeah, that’s the plan,” he replied. ”Just go back home and start playing some links golf and get ready for those couple weeks.”
With that, McIlroy excused himself and headed for the exit with a much better idea of how much dedication it’s going to take to be just half as good as Woods was – and still is – year in and year out, all the while dealing with the smothering attention that good week or bad, never goes away.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.