DORAL, Fla – It was right around the time Rory McIlroy was tapping in for a double bogey to complete his first nine holes of the WGC-Cadillac Championship on Thursday with a big, fat 40 that I started thinking about something he said during his pre-tournament news conference one day earlier: “I know going into this week where my game is. So even if things maybe don't go my way at some point during the round, I'll know how to manage it a little bit better.”
It was right around the time he was bouncing back with an eagle and three birdies in his next eight holes to quickly steer himself in the right direction that I recalled something else he’d mentioned prior to the first round: “I feel in a better place and probably a little more prepared than I was last week.”
And it was right around the time he’d finished with a bogey and trudged toward the scoring area at Trump National Doral to sign for a 1-over 73 and faced a media throng inquiring what went so wrong on the heels of last week’s missed cut that I considered his reaction to such scrutiny: “I realize what's expected of me. I expect a lot from myself.”
On a blustery day at the Blue Monster, McIlroy’s opening round might have been a little more roller coaster-ish than most others in the 73-man field, but the end result was actually better than the median. He is tied for 27th place and his score was a half-stroke better than the average. J.B. Holmes’ pacesetting 62 aside – one which had players wondering whether he’d played the right Doral track – McIlroy is only seven strokes out of second place with 54 holes remaining, hardly a death knell for a player capable of going so low on a course where major swings are almost built into the landscape.
Even so, there was a sense afterward that something might be wrong with his game, that whatever mercurial talents had led to him winning each of the last two major championships had somehow vanished in the early hours of this season.
That notion, of course, is a mistaken one, but it’s also understandable. For two decades now, Tiger Woods has dealt with the weight of expectations from both himself and the world around him. We can even argue that it’s the burden of those expectations which has led to the current state of his game. After all, it’s impossible to clear the bar when it’s been set considerably too high.
That’s another column for another day, though. This one is about McIlroy and his ability to – at the still-young age of 25 – not just deal with such lofty expectations, but address them directly and understand them fully. If any other player had posted a score of 1-over 73 in tough conditions – and there were a dozen total for the day – then answered questions about what went wrong, he might be apt to respond with all of the things which went right instead.
It’s also not as if McIlroy hasn’t dealt with these interrogations before. That opening-nine 40? It was his first since last year – a year when he won four times worldwide, sure, but also one during which he posted eight nine-hole splits in the 40s, an eye-popping number for a player of his accolades.
All of which should serve as a reminder that his Thursday score was nothing to worry about. In fact, for a player who is at best head and shoulders above the rest of his competition on any given week and at worst inconsistent and streaky, this was really par for the course – even if the final scorecard showed 1 over.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Just ask the guy who knows that with greater success comes greater expectations.
“Shooting 1 over par out there today isn't too bad,” he said. “It's obviously not what I wanted, but no reason to panic and no reason to be alarmed. Just go out tomorrow and put some red numbers on the board and try and get myself back in it.”
There is still plenty of time, of course. The player who preaches patience even under intense scrutiny knows this. He knows it just comes with the territory.