You could see the frustration etched across his face as he stood in front of the assembled media after his round. Rory McIlroy is a man battling with his game, and then some.
“It’s close but it’s not close enough,” he agonised after a second consecutive level-par 70 in the second round of The Open Championship at Royal St George’s, which has him tied-53rd at the halfway stage.
“That’s the way it’s kind of been for the last few months, it just hasn’t quite been close enough. I’ve just got to keep at it, persist and keep my head down.”
At level-par for the week, he’s a staggering 11 shots adrift of Louis Oosthuizen at the top of the leaderboard — the South African tearing up the Sandwich links as if it were an actual sandwich — and will have an early tee time this morning in the third round.
The Holywood man will not win this week, barring something miraculous. By that, we’re talking something along the lines of perfect weather on Saturday morning before a storm of epic proportions rolls in from France in the afternoon and, even then, Oosthuizen would probably find a way to scrape another low-60s round out of it. McIlroy simply has too much ground to make up and not enough holes to do it in.
A young fan, who followed the World No.11 for his first few holes, held up a sign with ‘Go Rory McIlroy’ written on it, adorned with a few rainbows, but the pot of gold waiting at the end for him wasn’t the one he was wanting. Ideally, he would have been making a push up towards the top of the leaderboard, feeling energised after birdieing the 18th on Thursday, but his birdie at the same hole on Friday came as more of a relief rather than another reboot.
The harsh reality is that level-par perhaps was an accurate reflection of his second round. Even harsher is that his own assessment that he could be six or seven under if he was on form isn’t far from the mark, either.
Indeed, watching McIlroy right now is tough, primarily because of how wildly his game fluctuates between superb and, well, the opposite of that.
He still possesses that incredible talent that led him to four Major wins and the World No.1 spot, that much is certain. His approaches at the fourth, ninth and particularly the 11th in Friday’s second round were majestic, and a 309-yard bomb down the seventh is power that can only be replicated by the enigmatic Bryson DeChambeau (driver sucking aside).
But there are too many shots he’s fighting with on too regular a basis. The driver, while long, still has a tendency to be wild. Wedge shots at the second, 15th and 16th went astray — although the latter, he claimed, was a mental error. And when the putter gets cold, it tends to be of the icy variety, as evidenced by misses of realistic chances at the first, second, seventh, 14th, 16th and 17th.
“You see the progress, but then the progress has to become not just every once in a while, it has to become every single time, and I’m working my way towards that,” he added.
Perhaps, then, it’s a good thing he made it into the weekend. That birdie at the 18th is a needed confidence boost given he admitted he was nervous standing on the tee, something a player of his calibre likely doesn’t feel very often, and it was another timely reminder that form is temporary, class is permanent.
He needs tournament rounds to try what he’s working on with Pete Cowen under test conditions. He didn’t get it in Scotland last week, but he will at Royal St George’s this week.
Sticking with the process will be tough, though. Looking up at the massive scoreboards flanking the 18th and seeing Collin Morikawa in at nine under after a 64 while he himself needed birdie at the last just to have some kind of assurance he was definitely above the cut line while he was watching in the afternoon would have hurt. Seeing Oosthuizen go low for a second day might have hurt even more. But he has to recognise that this is a process and it will take time.
Two more rounds at the weekend will help. Without the pressure of challenging for a Major, his focus can pivot from competing to learning, and maybe that will pay dividends.
“It’s tough to be here and just say I’m glad to be here for the weekend, but the position I found myself in on the 18th tee, that’s the reality,” he admitted.
“But it was nice to birdie the last and guarantee some weekend golf, and I just have to try and make the most of that.”
He will not be joined over the weekend by Darren Clarke, who, despite his own thoughts on the matter, was not nearly as bad as his five-over 75 on day two suggested.
Indeed, but for a horror stretch of five holes where he racked up three bogeys and a triple bogey, he would have been in with a shot of competing in the final two rounds. But at six over, he had taken five shots too many to be included in today’s draw.
“I didn’t play well, I didn’t hit the ball well and I got what I deserved. I’ve been playing a lot better than that, so I’m disappointed,” said Clarke.
Still, if this week reminded him of anything, it’s how universally respected he is as a golfer. Despite knowing he didn’t stand a chance of making the cut coming down the last hole, the crowd still gave him a rapturous ovation as he strode onto the green at Royal St George’s, almost certainly for the last time given his exemption as a former champion will expire soon. He will forever be included in the history books at this famous club.
He’s had more success against his peers on the seniors circuit in recent years and he’ll head to The Senior Open next week at Sunningdale hoping to add his first seniors Major title to his 2011 success in the mainstream event.
It may not count for as much, but he’d be no less of a Major champion if he did.