DUBLIN, Ohio – You can watch plenty of elite golfers compete in plenty of tournaments without ever witnessing the scene that unfolded Thursday morning on the 12th hole at Muirfield Village.
With his tee shot on the par-3, Rory McIlroy found the back-left greenside bunker, which doesn’t sound too awful until you consider the severe downhill slope on the green running away from him and toward an adjacent creek. Uncharacteristically, though perhaps not surprisingly, McIlroy’s bunker shot hit the green, then kept rolling … and rolling … and rolling … all the way into the water hazard.
And so, with no acceptable place from which to take a drop, the world’s second-ranked player instead took a stroll all the way back to the front teebox, stopping only to inquire of a golf writer: “Do you see a drop zone over there?”
(Note to aspiring professional golfers: If you ever need to know where a drop zone is, consult a golf writer.)
A drop, a chunked wedge, another bunker pitch and two putts later, McIlroy trudged off the hole – just his third of the Memorial Tournament opening round – with an unsightly quadruple-bogey. The rest of his opening nine holes didn’t go much better. He made back-to-back birdies, but also lost two more balls in the water en route to a 3-over 39.
It was almost enough to sound the alarms from across the pond. Coming off consecutive missed cuts at The Players Championship and the BMW PGA Championship – flagship events on the PGA Tour and European Tour, respectively – McIlroy has been hearing critical whispers about his dedication to the craft.
He isn’t working hard enough. He’s spreading himself too thin by playing both tours. He’s spending too much time globetrotting with his tennis pro girlfriend.
This is a classic case of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. The facts are that his work ethic is what elevated him to his current status; he’s been traversing the globe playing competitive tournaments since he was a teenager; and being in love has never directly correlated to making bogeys.
Instead, McIlroy is a victim of the 'superstar conundrum,' which can be clearly defined thusly: The more success someone earns, the more scrutiny he receives for not earning even more success. Consider it the ultimate Catch-22 for anyone who has achieved certain accomplishments in his given field.
“I think that is the way of life in anything if you're in the spotlight, you're in the public eye,” McIlroy said. “If I'd have missed two cuts in a row a couple years ago, no one would have batted an eyelid, but nowadays it's a little different.”
No golfer – heck, perhaps no athlete in the world – has been the subject of as much armchair analysis over the last few years as Tiger Woods, who understands what McIlroy has been enduring as of late.
“Obviously the criticism or scrutiny is because he's been so consistent over the last six, eight months,” said Woods, who posted an opening-round 2-under 70. “He's not just playing in the States. He's not just playing in Europe. He's playing all over the world, and he's playing at a high level for a very long time. People's expectations obviously are increased.”
As part of the conundrum, Rory was on the verge of facing even more scrutiny with his third straight missed cut after those opening nine holes, except he quelled any speculation nearly before it ever began, posting a 4-under 32 on the course’s front side – his second nine of the day – to somewhat miraculously shoot a 1-under 71 that left him five shots off first-round leader Scott Stallings.
The clear turning point came on the par-5 fifth hole. Just moments after impact on his drive, McIlroy shouted, “Fore left!” and pointed in that general vicinity. As it turned out, his ball wasn’t very far off line, hanging up in the left rough. Two shots later, he was chipping in for an eagle that minutes earlier had seemed as unlikely as posting an under-par score did following that quadruple-bogey.
“After the last few weeks, I was just like, here we go again,” he said. “But I hung in there well, am proud of myself for the way I just fought back. To finish the round under par I thought was a really good effort.”
Therein lies the reason for the scrutiny, the entire principle behind the 'superstar conundrum.' The expectations placed on McIlroy are based on the fact that with a U.S. Open triumph and five other professional victories, he deserves them. It’s the very reason why players who have achieved lesser amounts of success aren’t as heavily criticized.
On Thursday, he proved once again that critical analysis is hardly a deterrent of success. If McIlroy can claim the title come Sunday, he may not be the first player with a quadruple-bogey on his card to win, but he most certainly would be the first whose week commenced with a long walk back to the teebox after his second shot on a par-3 hole.
Just call it the ultimate comeback.