Rory McIlroy is flying, but this time it's under the radar
A mature, low-profile approach appears to be suiting the golfer down to a tee
The fanfare is back at the door of Tiger Woods. Rory McIlroy is enjoying the shelter.
A year ago McIlroy arrived at this championship skewered by the first rush of global celebrity. His immolation of the Congressional record books to win the US Open at 21 was a story that proved uncontainable. He had only to turn up at Royal St George's three weeks later to perform a similar act of alchemy, or so the fantasy went. The British summer and the hoary intuition of a links general – Darren Clarke – punched a hole in that and forced upon McIlroy's plate a different kind of experience to digest.
In recent weeks the game has imposed a further correction on his game. Four missed cuts in six events leading up to Lytham has had a cooling effect, which might yet serve McIlroy well this week. He has matured sufficiently to recognise his Kentish outburst a year ago as an act of petulance and no longer wishes to be associated with the idea that he is above changing to meet the demands of this great championship.
"Those comments were just pure frustration. Having really high expectations going into it, coming off a major win, really wanting to play well, get into contention and not doing that, was tough. And blaming the weather, blaming the draw, blaming my luck, basically, was just frustration. Looking back on it a year later, I just didn't play well enough to get into contention and didn't handle the conditions as I could have. That's something that I'm trying to do more of and I felt like I did that to some degree at Portrush, felt like I played well in the bad conditions. And if it's like that again this week, you're just going to have to knuckle down and focus and keep fighting to try to shoot a score."
Well said young man. McIlroy arrived on the Fylde Coast last week and spent the weekend mapping a way around the bunkers and the rough. He did the same at Royal St George's but not without an elaborate deception, subsequently exposed. Here he had Graeme McDowell and open space for company. "Yeah, it's been great, lovely just going about my business. It's been nice to prepare and definitely not with the madness that was going on last year. I've tried to keep it as low key as possible. I feel like I've done that pretty well. I went for dinner on Sunday night. Obviously people still come up and want photos and stuff. But the commotion was definitely not as bad as it was this time last year."
McIlroy under the radar is something of a paradox but helpful. The weather has also kept the crowds away during the practice days. He is, of course, only one low round from a return to hyperbole. The absurd idea that McIlroy is too reckless, too careless, too aggressive to work out a links course could be in the bin by Thursday night. This bloke has the talent to rip any track to pieces. Every career meets a corrective at some stage. This is a recurring phenomenon in golf.
Bad form invites a different kind of scrutiny. Myth does not allow for off days. Our ideas of greatness are too exacting to permit even the slightest error. Only perfection will do.
McIlroy was a classic victim of his own spectacular achievement. Inexperience fed a series of injudicious remarks that subsequently cost him when form dipped. He is still feeling the effects of that.
"Is your eye back on the ball?" he was asked. "I think so, yes." And further: "Are there any other distractions?" "There never were any distractions."
The manner of his response turned that line of inquiry into a cul-de-sac. McIlroy was irritated but in control, a notable advance on a year ago. Of greater relevance and interest was the one-ball tip he picked up from Jack Nicklaus. To simulate tournament conditions Nicklaus would hit only one ball instead of two or three shots into a green during practice rounds. McIlroy is an enthusiastic supporter of the practice.
"On Sunday I played the last 13 holes with one ball, and before that on Friday afternoon I played the back nine with one ball. For the last couple of days I've played the last four holes with one ball and had bets with Michael [Bannon, coach], my dad and JP [his caddie], trying to shoot a score for the last few holes." And? "Friday I shot 4 under on the back nine with one ball, which was good. Yesterday my target was to shoot 1 under and I did that, so won a coffee off JP. And today I didn't go so well, shot 1 over for the last four holes."
The exchange was a sweet vignette revealing a sense of calm that all the top pros strive to create. The link with Nicklaus is the kind of touch that keeps the McIlroy narrative bobbing along until the next big win, maintaining by association his link to the gods of this game. "It was definitely good advice, especially if you haven't played a tournament in a week or two. It gets you back into that competitive frame of mind. You're seeing shots and focusing on targets. Because sometimes when you're at a practice round you're just trying to see the course, and sometimes you're just going through the motions. It's good to really focus and try to shoot a few scores."
The rain swept in again by mid-afternoon yesterday, which acts as a climatic bomb-disposal device, softening the course and diminishing the degree of difficulty. From this distance, tomorrow's afternoon starters are thought to have the better of the opening day, with dry spells forecast. McIlroy has been under a cloud since the spring. How beautiful the symmetry would be were his form and the sun to return simultaneously, a double starburst over Lytham, you might say.
Rory's Open record
2007 Tied 42nd as the leading amateur at Carnoustie, after having a share of third after the opening day.
2009 After missing the 2008 event, McIlroy tied 47th at Turnberry.
2010 Finished tied third at St Andrews' after opening with a storming nine-under par 63 to lead on day one.
2011 Tied for 25th at Sandwich, falling away over the last two rounds.
Best of the tweets
Graeme McDowell Great practice round this morning with defending champ @DarrenClarke60 and Amateur Champ Alan Dunbar. Felt left out! #wheresmytrophygone
Darren Clarke Just woke up after aft-ernoon snooze to see it pouring down. Maybe getting up at 4.30am to practice wasn't bad idea after all!
Ian Poulter Great lie in this morning, resting up after a really early morning yesterday. Late afternoon practice session for me today.
Today Chance of rain throughout the day, some sunny spells. Maximum temperature: 16C
Tomorrow Staying mainly dry all day, with a small chance of rain at lunch. 16C
Friday Cloudy with intermittent sun. Light rain in early afternoon. 16C
Saturday Dry and overcast all day, with spells of sunshine. 16C
Sunday Cooler and wetter. 14C