SOUTHPORT, England – They are far too proper for such colorful remembrances here, but if Rory McIlroy somehow survives his nightmarish start at the 146th Open Championship the sage words of his caddie could well be enshrined on a plaque of some sort adjacent to the second tee box at Royal Birkdale.
Early Thursday when everything that could go wrong was going wrong for the Northern Irishman, his caddie J.P. Fitzgerald decided he’d seen enough.
“You’re Rory McIlroy. What the f--- are you doing?” Fitzgerald challenged.
After playing his first six holes in 5 over par, a shell-shocked McIlroy responded by playing his final 12 holes in 4 under. In fact, he would play his next 24 frames in 7 under before returning to earth with a pair of bogeys on Friday.
Fitzgerald’s indelicate choice of words aside, McIlroy has needed a pep talk for some time. He’s been injured, he’s been slump-shouldered, perhaps he’s even been distracted, but most of all he’s been average and Rory McIlroy is not average.
Although prone to short bouts of relatively pedestrian play in his career, this recent swoon has somehow felt different. A rib injury has been the primary culprit compounded by a forced equipment change when Nike Golf got out of the hard goods business.
In April, he married his longtime girlfriend Erica Stoll, a life-changing moment that was understandably celebrated, but a change nonetheless.
It’s all added up to a disjointed season that began with such promise, with top-10 finishes in three of his first four PGA Tour events of ’17 including a tie for seventh at the Masters, but has since slowed to an inexplicable slog, with missed cuts in three of his last four starts, including the U.S. Open.
A few weeks ago at the Travelers Championship McIlroy talked of turning the page to a new stage of his career after 10 years among the play-for-pay set, but this new chapter had not exactly been a light read.
Perhaps more than any other modern player, McIlroy is keenly adept at taking the long view. He realizes that at 28 his best and most productive years await, but even with that solace at this juncture in his career his focus is squarely on the high cotton – major championships – and with just six Grand Slam rounds remaining in 2017 it’s getting late early.
Fitzgerald must have sensed the urgency of the moment. No matter how close a caddie is with his player, an ill-timed or poorly worded pep talk can often do more harm than good.
“He does do it quite often, it's just whether it penetrates my head is a different thing,” McIlroy laughed on Friday after a round of 68 left him closer to the lead than one would have thought possible 24 hours earlier. “He's great. He tries to keep me as positive as he possibly can. And sometimes I get down on myself.”
But if Fitzgerald’s tough love was the turning point, it may be McIlroy’s own internal dialogue that saved his title chances. He explained he’s been able to better visualize his shots the last 27 holes and the results have been much more familiar.
McIlroy was eight strokes better on Friday through his first six holes than he was on Day 1 with birdies at Nos. 1, 2 and 6, and played a perfectly impressive round of links golf the rest of the way that included scrambling pars at Nos. 10, 11, 12 and 14.
It was one of those kinds of days on Friday at Royal Birkdale, when winds gusted to 30 mph and the scoring average ballooned.
“Huge,” he explained when asked about his short-game magic act. “They're the putts that haven't quite been going in over the past few weeks. That's all it takes to keep a round going, and to see those putts go in on 10 and 11 gives me a lot of confidence going into the weekend.”
Dive as deep as you’d like into McIlroy’s recent form, but if there’s a single cure for what ails him it’s that AWOL confidence that has appeared so limitless throughout his career.
Last month as he rifled through five different putters before Round 3 at the Travelers Championship, it would have been easy to think there was nothing wrong with McIlroy a few 5-footers couldn’t cure. But to hear him talk on Friday there was more to all this than a cold putter.
In its simplest form, Fitzgerald had it right – you’re Rory McIlroy, act like it. Yet as is often the case in professional golf, performance and confidence are not mutually exclusive.
“When you see a shot like the one I hit into 6, that does give you a lot of confidence,” said McIlroy, whose 1-under total left him three strokes off the lead. “The long iron I hit into the 17th. I guess it's almost like a validation that when you hole putts like that this is really good, you're fighting for it and you're mentally where you need to be.”
Perhaps this won’t be McIlroy’s week to etch his name into the claret jug for the second time. He’s won just one of his four majors when trailing after 36 holes, but there’s no doubt he’s rediscovered something important.
He’s Rory McIlroy.