What’s wrong with Rory McIlroy? Golf is hard, that’s what

Every golfer -- even World No. 1 Rory McIlroy -- will have a weekend like this once and a while.

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On Friday, at one of the most beautiful golf courses you’ll ever see, the most talented golfer on the planet was brought to his knees. Rory McIlroy, the face of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in more ways than one, opened his bid for a first-ever win at this event close to his home and his heart with a head-scratching 80, making nine bogeys and zero birdies and putting the World No. 1 in a position that almost certainly meant a weekend would be missed at Royal County Down.

And the questions began. What happened? What’s wrong with Rory McIlroy? How can the best player in the world shoot 80 (!!) and miss a cut in Europe for the second straight weekend after the way he just played at the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Match Play and the Wells Fargo?

To all those questions, one answer sits clearly on top: Golf happened. For anyone who has ever picked up a club, with a handicap that has a plus sign in front or one that reads more like a speed limit sign, rounds like these happen, especially when weather is involved.

But that wasn’t enough for most. Comparing athletes is one of the most popular things sports fans and pundits do — I am guilty here myself — and the obvious comparison between Rory and Tiger Woods is there, especially considering Rory’s victories at majors early in his career. And of course, the comparison to the way Woods battled when his swing wasn’t there or his time zones were more mixed up than a hungover caddie aren’t out of left field, but they might be unfair. Tiger had an ability to battle out rounds like nobody in the history of the game, and it didn’t hurt that most of those rounds were up against fields that had half the talent of those in today’s game. The fear in everyone else isn’t there like it was during Tiger’s crazy run, and unlike the days of Woods versus the field, most unknowns not only want to play in the same event as the Rorys, Jordans and yes, Tigers, of today, but they want to beat them.

Being the top player in the world brings a whole new level of responsibility, sure, and if Rory were photographed breaking the law or doing something most 26-year-olds might be doing with the millions and the fame, it would make sense to condemn him, but having a bad round of golf from time to time is a part of this gig (that’s why “disappoints sell-out crowds” might be a bit much). Anyone who has ever played links golf in a two-club wind can relate. It isn’t easy. It’s a different type of golf, and it can make you do some goofy stuff. It’s the reason this same man, five years ago at the British Open at St. Andrews, followed up an opening-round 63 with an 80. Of all the types of golf in the world, links golf is the one that can humble even the prettiest of swings and is the one thing that can bring down someone riding a wave of momentum and success.

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Asked after his second-round 71, a fight by all accounts to attempt to make the weekend, what happened, Rory gave, as he always does, an honest response.

“It’s disappointing.  I wanted to come here and play well this week,” he told reporters. “Obviously, I’m playing at home in front of a lot of friends and family, and obviously got a lot of support out here. To not play the way I wanted to was, or is, very disappointing. But I’m sort of getting used to it. This is my third year in a row missing the cut on The Irish Open. I don’t know, I think it didn’t fall in a great place in the schedule being my fifth tournament in a row, but saying that, that doesn’t really make up for how I did yesterday.”

And to compare that round with his recent 61 in the third round at Quail Hollow, Rory stated what everyone should be thinking.

“It’s golf, but Quail Hollow, the conditions, that’s my game,” he told reporters. “That’s what I do best. And you give me this golf course in those conditions I had at Quail Hollow, it would be a much different story.”

It’s golf. See, even Rory agrees.

Nothing is wrong with Rory McIlroy. Having up-and-down weeks is something that happens to everyone else in golf. Martin Kaymer, a two-time major winner who took home the Players Championship and U.S. Open last year, didn’t make the weekend playing alongside Rory. Sergio Garcia wasn’t around for the weekend, either. And the eventual champion at County Down, Soren Kjeldsen, shot a final-round 76 before eventual taking home the trophy in a playoff.

But for Rory McIlroy, “the next big thing” in this game, off-days don’t seem to be an option. People often forget that this game is meant to disappoint. It’s meant to beat you up. And instead of remembering that the man won two straight majors last year and now has two PGA Tour wins in his last three starts, the question is about this week. “What have you done for me lately?” I guess.

I still like Rory’s chances at Chambers Bay. And St. Andrews. And for that matter, Whistling Straits. I’m sure in a couple of weeks, you’ll forget about County Down and join me.

Golf is hard. Don’t forget that.