No end to Rory McIlroy's sinking feeling
Irish eyes were smiling at Carton House yesterday but there was no end to Rory McIlroy's agony.
McIlroy admitted to feeling "a little lost" as he struggled to a first round of 74 in the Irish Open – a score that leaves him eight shots off the lead and battling to make the cut.
The Holywood star was hoping to shine on home turf but insteas it was Michael Hoey and Shane Lowry who came to the party.
Lowry, effectively the tournament host, was inspired by the enthusiastic acclaim of thousands of his fellow-countrymen as he swept to within one shot of the tournament lead with a well-crafted first round 67.
Ballymoney native Hoey also claimed a share of second place along with Dutchman Joost Luiten and young American Peter Uhlein on five-under par, just shy of the lead held Oscar Floren, 29, a Swede who had to win back his card at Q-School last November.
Graeme McDowell, Gareth Maybin, Alan Dunbar and Padraig Harrington are all well placed on one under, but Darren Clarke finished on a three over par 75.
New touring Galgorm professional Gareth Shaw is one over while Northern Ireland amateur Reeve Whitson is four over.
Hoey hit four birdies and just one bogey on the front nine and came home with two further birdies but in stark contrast, McIlroy was suffocated neither by his own nor the home crowd's expectations but by self-doubt. Remarkably, one of the greatest young talents in the world game was reduced to wondering almost hole-by-hole where on earth his next drive might fly.
"You know, off the tee, I'm missing one left and I'm missing one right," the 24-year-old confessed in a crie-de-couer which will be instantly recognised by the vast majority of frustrated amateur golfers.
"At least if you have one miss, you can sort of play for it but it's tough when you see both shots coming ... it sort of puts you in two minds every time you hit a tee shot."
He added: "I guess no aspects of my game are standing out that are strong. I just feel a little lost at the moment."
Playing in a three ball with Lowry and Dane Thomas Bjorn, crowned champion the last time the Irish Open graced the Montgomerie Course in 2006, McIlroy offered the thousands who braved the rain and cold of a sullen Thursday morning little evidence of the genius which propelled him to two record-breaking Major titles. Instead, he played like a pale shadow of his usual self.
The trademark spring was missing from his step, while, more disconcertingly, his eyes looked jaded and empty, more like those of a tired and battered old Tour veteran. It's quite incredible how punishing and perplexing this sport can be.
"I hit all the shots I want on the range but when I get out on the course, it just seems not to be really there," explained McIlroy. "I don't know if it's just a matter of trying to play my way out of it of just keep grinding on the range or whatever.
"Look, I'm trying my best to go out there and play the best golf that I can but it's just not good enough at the minute."
No part of McIlroy's game rose above the mundane as he missed fairways, greens and putts, of which he took 34 yesterday, including one three-putt.
Yet it's the fallibility of his driver, the principal weapon in the youngster's armoury as he flew to the top of the world last year, which inevitably causes him most angst. Mcilroy used draw confidence from this club but not now.
"I drove the ball really well last year and that was a big factor in my success because I was hitting it long and I was hitting it straight," he concurred. "This year I've just got into a couple of bad habits.
"When you've got the two misses going, it's hard to stand up and be confident whenever you are on a tee, that at least one side is out of play. It doesn't feel like that at the minute.
"But look," McIlroy added: "I've got all the time in the world. I'm sure it will come round eventually."
Quickly enough for him to make the cut here? McIlroy this afternoon hopes to tap the enthusiasm of the big galleries at Carton House, saying: "It'd be good to turn it around, play a bit better tomorrow and make the weekend.
"It's very important. You never want to miss a cut so I want to go out there tomorrow, try my best, and shoot a round at least a couple under par to get myself into the weekend."
The rain stopped in mid-afternoon, allowing many in the 15,282 attendance fold their umbrellas. Unsurprisingly, that figure paled by comparison with the 23,283 who packed Royal Portrush for the first round of an Irish Open which shattered all crowd records on the European Tour.
Many of the fans were following Lowry and the 26-year-old Clara man didn't disappoint.
"It was brilliant out there," he said. "The crowd from home are great and I'm sure there's going to be quite a few coming up each day for the rest of the week. It's great to have them here and a pleasure to have the support from fans from all around the country."
Lowry actually resides on the Carton Estate and enthusiastically embraced this week's occasion, which he describes as "a massive tournament.
"Some felt it might put a lot of added pressure on me but I've tried this week to turn that to my advantage and it's more of an incentive to do well.
"It's a privilege really, to be able to play on my own home golf course, stay in my own house and have all of my family and friends up from home to watch me. What more could a professional golfer want?"