The world No1 has won in two of his last three starts, at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play and last Sunday’s Wells Fargo Championship, in which he shot a third-round 61 at Quail Hollow to lay the platform for a dominant seven-shot victory.
Yesterday, back for his first tournament of the year on European soil but his fourth consecutive week of competition, McIlroy appeared to run out of steam, at least between the ears, with the Irishman pictured tossing a fairway wood in frustration after a poor second shot on the par-five 17th.
A one-under-par 71 in yesterday’s opening round leaves the Holywood star six shots off the 18-hole lead held by Francesco Molinari as he prepares to tee off his second round today at 1pm.
The Italian opened his account with a seven-under 65 that puts him two shots clear of Sweden’s Robert Karlsson although even six strokes is not insurmountable by any means, particularly for McIlroy.
Yet the four-time major champion acknowledged that having crossed the Atlantic for week four of a five-week run that will end on home soil next week at Royal County Down for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, he has to get back on top of his mental fatigue.
That is certainly true if he is to win the European Tour’s flagship tournament for a second year in a row but McIlroy admitted his frustrations were trying his patience more than a little.
“Physically, I’m all right. Mentally, I feel myself getting a bit angry out there, which I haven’t been doing the last few weeks,” McIlroy said.
“I just sort of need to stay in control of my emotions because I feel like that’s one of the things, if I’m a little tired or a little fatigued mentally, I’ll start to be hard on myself and start to get down on myself. Try not to do that over the next few days. Just try and get as much rest as I’ve been getting and I should be okay. I just need to try to keep everything on an even keel out there.”
It is not just on the golf course that McIlroy has been working overtime. Less than 24 hours after his Quail Hollow victory in North Carolina, the 26-year-old was making an in-store appearance on behalf of his sponsors at Niketown in London and the following night attended the European Tour’s Players’ Awards to collect his players’ player and golfer of the year honours in recognition of his stellar 2014 season.
Yet it was inside the ropes of an unforgiving West Course yesterday that he began to pay the price for those exertions, opening with a bogey after missing the green, sinking birdies at the second and fourth and then bogeying the fifth, a long par-three.
On the back nine, McIlroy went birdie, bogey, birdie between 12 and 14 but the frustration was simmering as he failed to improve his position, finishing his round with missed opportunities on the par-fives at 17 and 18, leaving a 10-foot putt inches short at the last.
The key to better mental strength, McIlroy explained, was “acceptance of bad shots”.
“That’s the thing that I’ve been doing so well, and every time I’ve played well this year, I’ve been talking about how mentally good I’ve been in terms of acceptance and patience, and I feel like my patience was sort of wearing thin out there today. So I just need to try and stay a little bit more patient.”
When McIlroy was speaking, he was just three shots off the clubhouse lead held at the time by Karlsson.
“I felt like I left a couple out there but when I look at the leaderboard, I’m only three shots off the lead. Everyone else must have been finding it quite difficult out there, as well. I didn’t feel like any aspect of my game was really off today. But at the same time, I didn’t do anything that good, either. There’s definitely room for improvement.”
Molinari’s bogey-free 65 on a glorious day which drew a tournament record first-round attendance of 20,956, will have taken some of the gloss off that outlook but McIlroy will not feel his title defence is a lost cause just yet.
Karlsson will begin round two in second on five-under with a quintet of Miguel Angel Jimenez, fellow Spaniard Jorge Campillo, England’s Chris Wood, Scotland’s Marc Warren and Korean YE Yang on four-under par. Peter Lawrie, recipient of a tournament invite as late as Monday afternoon, starts his second round today as the best-placed Irishman amidst a group on three-under as he continues his bid to regain his card for next season.