GULLANE, SCOTLAND — Three weeks ago, at Merion, Rory McIlroy expressed his growing frustration by leaning on one of his wedges until it bent. Thursday afternoon, at Muirfield, he merely poked the inside of his cheek with his tongue.
A psychotherapist would nod approvingly, but McIlroy is looking to improve his golf game, not just his demeanor. The year 2013 has been a full-out fizzle for the reigning PGA champion, who finished T41 at the U.S. Open and has only one top-5 finish to show for 13 starts on the PGA and European Tours. Now he's shot an opening-round 79 at the Open Championship, a dismal performance that included two greenside chips on No. 12 and a lowlights-reel putt past the flag and into a bunker on No. 15.
The most urgent question in golf — once whispered, now shouted — is "What's wrong with Rory?"
Sir Nick Faldo says Rory's struggles are easily explained by the youngster's recent change of equipment (from Titleist to Nike) and the unsettling impacts of young love (a globetrotting romance with tennis-star Caroline Wozniacki). "Rory very simply messed with a winning formula," says Faldo, who won six majors of his own before retiring to the TV tower.
Faldo speaks from experience, having changed both equipment companies and wives during his career. But he drastically understates the commotion in McIlroy's life. In the past 12 months, the world's second-ranked golfer has split with his girlfriend of six years, parted company with agent Chubby Chandler, signed a ten-year endorsement deal with Nike rumored to be worth $200 million, sold his five-bedroom home in Northern Ireland, moved into a $10.9 million Florida mansion, and filmed a series of commercials with Tiger Woods (the implication being that they are near equals).
The above-mentioned psychotherapist, knowing that even one major life change produces more stress than the average 24-year-old can handle, would probably make a snap diagnosis of "acute depression with hooking tendencies."
"It's like life," McIlroy conceded this week. "You're going to go through highs and you're going to go through lows. It's just about trying to work your way out of the lows. And I know sooner or later it will turn around, and I'll play the golf that everyone knows I'm capable of."
Judging from McIlroy's start at Muirfield, "or later" is the operative term. He was a respectable one over par at the turn, but bogeys at Nos. 10 and 11 shook his confidence. On the par-4 12th he hit an approach that scared the pin but trickled off the green and down a bank into rough. Having short-sided himself, he deposited his first chip on the green's edge, only to watch his ball roll back down the bank. His next effort chugged past the flag at a good clip, leaving him a lengthy putt for bogey — which he missed. That's when Rory's eyes went out of focus and his tongue began exploring his cheek.
Three holes later, Rory putted from just short of the green and watched in disbelief as his ball ignored the flag and wandered to the back edge before toppling into a bunker. This time he displayed a wan smile before puffing out his cheeks — an all-too-familiar reaction in this, the summer of his discontent.
"Yeah, it just kind of got away from me," McIlroy said after his round. "I mean, I wish I could stand up here and tell you guys what's wrong … because I feel like I've got the shots. It's just a matter of going through the right thought process to hit them, and that's something that I obviously haven't been doing recently."
His poor play, he insisted, has nothing to do with the angle of his takeaway, the charms of his girlfriend or the name on the sole of his putter. It's all in his head. "Sometimes I feel like I'm walking around out there, and I'm unconscious. I just need to try to think more."
Oh, dear. "Thinking more" is what hackers do. It's the secret sauce that produces wayward drives and flubbed chips. It's the polar opposite of "the zone" that great players like McIlroy get into on occasion, the exalted state that produces rounds of minus-eight instead of plus-eight. But maybe McIlroy meant he needed to "think straight" — because he described his current approach as "brain dead."
"Seriously, "I feel like I've been walking around like that for the last couple of months. I just don't quite know why."
Was he admitting that Faldo and the armchair psychologists were right? Had love and lucre taken Rory's focus away from practice and preparation?
"No, not at all," he said. "No, no, it's not that at all. No. I'm fully focused on the golf out there." It was an answer so defensive that it practically screamed "Yes!"
McIlroy will try again on Friday afternoon.