SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Dazzling and disappointing. Awe-inspiring and cringe-inducing.
On one hand, we had the supremely confident ball-striker, a man who bent Baltusrol Golf Club to his will and led the field through two rounds in strokes gained off-the-tee.
On the other we had a player who seemed mystified once his hands touched a putter, unable to coax the ball to its target from close range after placing it into position with such ease.
McIlroy missed the cut at the season’s final major – in spectacularly creative fashion, of course – but the pensive tone with which he assessed his performance showed this was more than just a 36-hole blip on the radar.
This signaled a growing trend that reached a tipping point in the steamy conditions of North Jersey, an indication that all is officially not well in the land of Ulster.
“I need to go back to the drawing board and see where we go from here,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy’s entire year can perhaps be summed up by his final hole at Baltusrol. He bombed a towering, 312-yard drive into the skinny neck of the fairway, easily eschewing a pond that gobbled up several tee shots during the second round.
An aggressive 5-iron from 209 yards barely missed the mark, and then the trouble began.
One flubbed chip. Then another. McIlroy believed he needed birdie to make the cut, when in fact a par would have sufficed. Instead, he left with a bogey that ended his chances and sparked some serious introspection.
“I think if you had given anyone else in the field my tee shots this week, they would have been up near the top of the leaderboard,” he said. “It just shows you how bad I was around the greens.”
McIlroy is now out of major chances this year, and he soon may be running out of options to solve his putting woes. He finished 151st in strokes gained putting this week among a 156-man field that, remember, included 20 club professionals whose day job does not revolve around making 10-footers.
The switch to a cross-handed grip at Doral in March didn’t do the trick, nor did a return to a conventional grip at the Memorial in June. Hours logged with putting guru and former PGA champion Dave Stockton didn’t provide a salve, nor did the time he spent Thursday evening on the Baltusrol putting green, alone amid the raindrops save for the watchful eye of swing coach Michael Bannon.
Top-10 finishes like the ones McIlroy logged at Augusta National and Royal Troon are good for the bank account and a few world ranking points, but they can also mask symptoms of an ailment that runs bone-deep. McIlroy stood at the podium Friday evening clearly frustrated, but also shaken to his core and unsure where next to turn.
“I need to do something,” he said. “Tee to green is good, I just need to figure out what to do on the greens. I need to have a long, hard think about that.”
Players go through droughts, and putters sometimes run cold. But this – it’s more than just a dry spell.
For McIlroy, it’s another week of elite ball-striking jettisoned down the drain. Another missed opportunity to quell the voices clamoring for him to re-join the Big Whatever.
It’s another glaring example that scintillating drives and soaring irons aren’t quite enough if the 14th club in the bag fails to cooperate.
The divide in McIlroy's game has never seemed more apparent, and the urgency for him to bridge the gap is near an all-time high.
But after a surprising early exit from the PGA, this much is clear: the problem isn’t going to resolve itself, and it might send McIlroy back to square one in search for answers.