PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – All signs pointed toward another successful week for the world’s best golfer.
He arrived in peak form, having won in Dubai four weeks ago.
He arrived at a course where he had won three years ago and probably should have won last year.
His six-week journey to Magnolia Lane appeared clear, as he prepared to kick off a stretch of three starts to complete his prep for the Masters, where he hopes to complete the career grand slam.
Then in the course of 36 holes at PGA National, he showed his mortality.
McIlroy dug himself a hole with an opening-round 73 amid blustery conditions, then was unable to rebound during a second round that was twice interrupted by lengthy weather delays. He limped home, with three bogeys across his final four holes for a 74, and made little effort to disguise his emotions after posting a 7-over 147 total.
“I’m pissed off,” he said. “I don’t like missing cuts. You want to be playing on the weekend, and I’m not there.”
A missed cut has become a rarity for McIlroy during his most recent ascent to the top of the world rankings. His previous MC came last summer at the European Tour’s Irish Open, while his most recent one on the PGA Tour came at the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield.
For a missed cut on U.S. soil you have to go back even further, to the 2012 U.S. Open, while McIlroy last missed the cut on Tour in a non-major at the 2012 Memorial Tournament.
Of course, those stats don’t include his bizarre walk-off two years ago at PGA National, when his title defense ended nine holes short of an official missed cut because of golf’s most infamous toothache.
While this week’s early exit was more conventional than that of 2013, the fact remains that McIlroy’s downhill coast to Augusta National has hit a speed bump.
“Usually I’m good at taking it from the range to the course. That’s never really been a problem with me,” McIlroy said. “But this week, it was funny, it felt like the first tournament of the season when I’ve actually played two events.”
McIlroy’s week began with a lost ball on his opening hole, and he never truly recovered. While he hit only 50 percent of the greens for 36 holes on the Champion Course, his inability to score Friday was rooted in his putting.
McIlroy required 31 putts, and a 6-foot par save on No. 12 turned out to be his longest made putt of the round. With a missed cut already assured, his day ended appropriately with a miss from 3 1/2 feet on No. 9, resulting in his first three-putt of the round.
“I feel like it was more the reads,” McIlroy said. “I felt like I was hitting some good putts. Just didn’t quite go in.”
While the full-field stats will reflect that McIlroy received an unfavorable draw, playing in the strongest winds Thursday afternoon and then enduring sloppy conditions Friday morning, others were able to thrive under similar circumstances. Tournament leader Patrick Reed shot consecutive rounds of 67 playing in the group in front of McIlroy, while Brooks Koepka fired a second-round 64 playing in McIlroy’s group.
“It’s surprising,” Koepka said of McIlroy’s missed cut. “He’s the best player in the world right now. Any time he struggles, I think it would be a shock to everyone.”
McIlroy will have little time to contemplate his struggles, as the first WGC event of the year looms next week just down the Florida Turnpike at Trump National Doral. There he will be greeted by another stern test, albeit one that will at least guarantee him four competitive rounds.
“Coming off three weeks off, and playing in conditions like these, it sort of shows you where your game’s at,” he said. “Just got to regroup and put some work in and get ready for Miami next week.”
When prompted, McIlroy insists that he is not yet thinking about the Masters – that his focus remains on the task at hand, as will be the case next week at Doral. But the season’s first major draws ever nearer, and McIlroy is now faced with his first set of on-course concerns.
The stage will be largely his next month at Augusta National, as he looks to win a third consecutive major and capture the biggest title that has eluded him.
Whether he can right his ship before next week’s event – or more importantly, the one that looms less than six weeks away – remains to be seen.