By John McHenry
Rory McIlroy is still very much in his prime but such was the impact of his early days on tour, where he thrilled, intimidated, entertained, and entranced, he is one of the few sportsmen in the world known by his first name.
None of that was really apparent when looking at his body language on the opening hole of the Open yesterday.
To the untrained eye, all would have seemed normal just moments earlier, as he launched each practice ball effortlessly on the range with his controlled, muscular swing. As one of the world’s premier ball strikers, he is already proven in that department.
But knowing that his putting consistency wasn’t anywhere near where it needs to be, if he is to realistically have a chance to add to his major tally this week, he looked like a man under pressure.
With nothing conspicuously out of sync in his putting stroke, more and more you wonder what toll the beautifully struck approach shots that regularly zero in on the flag followed by a mediocre, if not an awful, putt is having on his mental state.
Among the countless conundrums that this game continuously presents to all players is that while all the basic shot making skills can endure for life, the crucial putting strokes that require little or no exertion on the green rarely make it intact throughout a player’s career.
You only have to look at all of the current putting styles on tour at the moment to know that a vanished putting touch is the quickest way to lose your status.
It is for this reason that McIlroy finds himself spending most of his time defending an almost intolerable limbo. Passionately defiant, it is obvious that his current form doesn’t sit comfortably with him as he regards himself among the very best in the game.
Bob Rotella once wrote “Golf is not a game of perfect” but at this stage you feel with McIlroy that it isn’t even a game of much fun anymore when you are consistently leaving yourself with opportunities you cannot convert.
Mentally it seems that you have to be firing on all cylinders just to hang on to the shirttails of contemporaries who seem to be holing so many putts and are not particularly playing well when winning.
Before yesterday’s round McIlroy openly spoke about playing with more of the freedom and enjoyment he had when he first entered the professional game. It sounds great but in reality, it’s near impossible, and he would do well now to understand how Nicklaus and Woods have remained competitive over time.
Armed with the knowledge and experience that comes with time, they have both used it to their advantage, honing their game strengths to suit the challenge. They intimidated with consistency, patience, and a rock solid short game that allowed them to squeeze and squeeze — forcing a level of brilliance out of their opposition that was not often there more often than not was not there.
Superstardom in golf is a balanced mixture of brilliance and effectiveness.
Although naturally gifted, McIlroy’s early game was more one of sound basics, flair, and intimidation. Having conquered the amateur game, he carried that same confidence and intimidation into his professional career, when winning four major championships in three years.
With Woods then out of the picture, it seemed like it was McIlroy’s time to dominate but where Woods constantly raised his game to meet and fend off all challengers in his prime, McIlroy’s game has stagnated, thanks primarily to a streaky putter.
With so much pressure being exerted on his long game, it was interesting to watch McIlroy’s game plan for yesterday’s round.
Playing to his strengths, he attacked the course where possible, but, in my mind, his usually reliable swing looked shorter than normal, resulting in the club getting trapped too far behind his body and him playing out of the left-hand rough for most of the day.
Riding his luck, some of his controlled iron play from the rough was simply phenomenal but he will know that he will have to spend more time on the short grass over the coming three days if he is to mount any type of serious challenge.
For me, that still seems unlikely given his continued putting woes but 69 represents a great score and if he can find some putting inspiration from somewhere, then we know he will fear no one.
To his advantage, Carnoustie, in little or no wind yesterday, once against proved just how formidable a test it is for the world’s best players. Short and fast with little rough and receptive greens, I feared for the course as it was playing as easy as it possibly could, but such were the varying game plans that you know the players respected the challenge, with none looking decidedly comfortable at any stage.
With one round down, expect the leaderboard to thin out over the coming days as many players succumb to the enormity of the occasion.
For the likes of McIlroy, it means more of the same over the coming days.
It is irrelevant how he gets there.
With a championship at stake, it is now about giving himself an opportunity to watch his name climbing the leaderboard. He will be excited about this opportunity but he will also know that this tournament still has a long way to run.