HOYLAKE, England – The first question posed to Rory McIlroy on Thursday had nothing to do with his first-round lead, or his bogey-free 66, or his 340-yard average off the tee.
Those queries could wait.
Instead, the first question McIlroy faced at Royal Liverpool was this:
“During your second-round struggles, how much unsolicited advice have you received about how you can turn it around?”
On Friday, McIlroy has to overcome what began as a coincidence and now has morphed into a mental hurdle as tall as one of the grandstands here.
In opening rounds worldwide this year, he is 57 under par. When factoring in the third and fourth rounds, he is a combined 103 under.
In second rounds? He’s 9 over. It doesn’t compute.
He’s the fastest starter in golf. And he’s also the biggest stumbler.
Even Jack Nicklaus has noticed the trend. The 18-time major winner had a two-hour meeting with McIlroy in his office a few days after the Memorial and asked him, rather bluntly: “How the hell can you shoot 63 and then 78?”
For a player who makes everything seem so easy, McIlroy is now trying awfully hard not to try so hard.
It’s a shame too, for he’s in sensational form heading into this championship. Even with the terrible second rounds, and the six nine-hole scores of 40 or worse in his last eight events, the winner at the BMW PGA has finished outside the top 25 only once this year.
“Whenever I go out and play on Thursdays there are not many expectations,” he said. “You’re going out there and you’re trying to find a rhythm, and you’re just trying to play your way into the round. When you go back out on Friday after a good score, you know what you can do on the golf course. So you’re going out with some expectations, compared to on Thursday you’re going out with not many. I think I’ve just got to approach it like that.”
McIlroy also said he would try to avoid looking at leaderboards, because his position during the round is “irrelevant.” It’s only the second day.
“When I’m in a real good mindset I don’t care,” he said.
In a bit of irony, McIlroy can’t even seem to avoid his own up-and-down history in this event. The last time he had the first-round lead at the Open was 2010, when he shot 63 at St. Andrews. The next day, in a hellish wind, he turned in an 80, a not-so-friendly reminder of his volatile game.
“Finished third that year,” he said, smiling.
Thursday’s opener here even reminded McIlroy of 2010. No doubt the early conditions were similar, with virtually no wind in the morning leading to plenty of birdies. And the golf courses are relatively similar too, St. Andrews and Hoylake, in that it’s imperative to take care of the par 5s and the short par 4s, and to stay out of the bunkers.
Another similarity: Conditions are supposed to take a turn for the worse Friday, particularly in the afternoon, with a few showers expected and a steady, 25-mph wind.
At least McIlroy posted a score when he could.
He missed two putts inside 10 feet over the first three holes and still made the turn in 32. He added birdies on Nos. 10, 12 and 16, and likely would have carded another if not for a bad break in a greenside bunker on 18. Nonetheless, he missed only four greens on the day, and when he did hit driver (four times), he bashed it an average of 340.5 yards, tops in the field.
“If he was driving the ball well, he wasn’t going to have any trouble in these conditions,” said Jordan Spieth, who played in McIlroy’s group. “I don’t think he’s going to have any trouble (Friday), either. Those Friday-round jitters he’s been talking about, that’ll change tomorrow. He’s in complete control of his entire bag.”
Though the comparisons to 2010 are inevitable, given his recent trend, McIlroy would do well to draw upon a similar situation that yielded an entirely different outcome. In the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, he held the outright lead after the first round, poured it on with a Friday 66, and went on to win by eight.
“It’s not like I’ve shot good scores in first rounds and haven’t backed them up before,” he said. “I’m used to doing that. I just haven’t done it recently.”