After his 78th swipe of the day, Rory McIlroy walked off the final green at Wentworth Golf Club, a victim of the 36-hole cut at the BMW PGA Championship.
Surprising? Certainly. Concerning? Not in the least.
McIlroy remains in the midst of a whirlwind spring tour that might be better suited for his musical friend Niall Horan: five events in five weeks across three countries, two continents and a handful of time zones.
The fatigue associated with that itinerary may have contributed to McIlroy’s early exit. After all, we saw Jordan Spieth suffer a similar fate earlier this month at The Players Championship, reduced from world-beater to also-ran in the span of 36 holes. Incidentally, he seems to have found his way once again this week at Colonial.
"I'm probably in need of a little bit of a rest," McIlroy said. "I'd rather still be here, but it's not all bad getting to go home for the weekend."
Maybe it wasn’t just the fatigue, though. Perhaps it was the layout itself, as McIlroy has never really gotten along with the West Course at Wentworth. Friday’s result meant three missed cuts in the last four years, a trend that serves to highlight just how impressive his victory a year ago was.
Or maybe this was simply a bad day at the office. McIlroy appeared out of sorts early on, hitting three consecutive shots from the sand en route to a bogey on No. 3, and he didn’t make his first birdie until No. 8. McIlroy’s round officially derailed on the easiest stretch of the course, holes 10-13. While the world No. 1 was expected to rally with a handful of birdies, he instead played the four holes in 4 over, including a double bogey on No. 11, to essentially seal his fate.
"I'm sort of back to my usual at Wentworth," McIlroy said. "It wasn't great before I won last year, and it hasn't been great after."
Great players have bad rounds – even when coming off a seven-shot romp in their most recent start. McIlroy’s score was 17 shots higher than his third-round total six days ago at Quail Hollow, a spread that indicates golf’s vagaries strike even the best in the world.
It also shows just how superhuman Tiger Woods was during his prime. Coming off two victories in three starts, a missed cut for Woods a decade ago would have been as unlikely as a five-putt. Tiger is Tiger and Rory is Rory, no matter how easy it seems to compare the two.
"It was inevitable at some point that the run was going to come to a bit of an end," McIlroy said.
We’ve been here before with McIlroy, though, and know better than to read too much into a single poor result. He missed the cut in surprising fashion last year at the Irish Open, then turned around and won everything in sight across the summer.
He missed the cut earlier this year, too, at the Honda Classic in March. Whispers swirled again: Would he be able to follow up a two-major season? Had rust gathered in the winter months?
Six consecutive top-11 results followed, including wins at both TPC Harding Park and Quail Hollow, to silence any of those doubts.
So as McIlroy heads to the Irish Open – with a couple of extra days off – it’s wise not to read too deeply into the tea leaves scattered in his wake at Wentworth. Next week, McIlroy will serve as tournament host at Royal County Down, an event that means as much if not more to him than this week’s test.
After that it will be the U.S. Open, where McIlroy admitted earlier this week the uncertainty presented by Chambers Bay will make it difficult to predict an outcome. McIlroy could show up and dust the field as he did at Congressional in 2011, or he could cancel his weekend hotel reservations.
The takeaway from McIlroy’s game is not this week, it’s this month. He will not make every cut, and when his ball-striking begins to falter, he is still prone to big numbers. That hasn’t changed.
But the last four weeks, specifically the two wins, demonstrated that McIlroy is the best player in the world. A missed cut at Wentworth showed that he is still human, but it doesn’t unseat him from golf’s pole position.