Rory McIlroy admitted to feeling “a little lost” as he struggled to a first round of 74 in the Irish Open that left him eight shots off the lead and battling to make the cut.
McIlroy won five times last year, including his second major title in the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, but has struggled to reproduce that form in 2013.
The 24-year-old finished 41st in the US Open at Merion a fortnight ago and yesterday apologised for throwing a club and bending his nine iron out of shape during a final round of 76.
The nine iron – one of the Nike clubs he controversially changed to in a multi-million pound deal in January – has since gained a new shaft, but that did little to improve his fortunes at Carton House, where Sweden’s Oscar Floren carded a six-under 66 to lead by one from former champion Shane Lowry, Michael Hoey, Joost Luiten, Peter Uihlein and Jean-Baptiste Gonnet.
Lowry, who was still an amateur when he won at Baltray in 2009, was playing alongside McIlroy – whom he beat in the first round of the Accenture Match Play in February – while the third member of the group, the in-form Thomas Bjorn, carded a 68 that was matched by the likes of Paul Casey and former Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal.
McIlroy cut a disconsolate figure after his round and there was a long pause when he was asked what was going wrong.
“I don’t really know,” the world number two said. “No aspects of my game are standing out as strong. I’m hitting it well on the range and struggling hitting shots out on the course. The game is not coming as easy to me as it did last year.
“Off the tee I’m missing it left and right and it’s difficult to stand on the tee and be confident that at least one side is out of play. I don’t know if it’s a case of playing through it or grinding it out on the range.
“I just feel a little lost at the moment. I had a good chat with my dad and Michael Bannon (his coach) the Saturday night of the US Open and felt like we got a bit of direction from there, but it’s tough when you have rounds like this or you have tournaments where you think you’re getting somewhere and all of a sudden you’re stopped in your tracks and you’ve got to re-assess everything again.
“I’m staying patient and I don’t want to say I’m accepting this, but there’s nothing else I can do apart from trying to play well, practise and try to hit better shots.”
McIlroy’s mood was in sharp contrast to that of Casey, who was ranked third in the world in 2009 but is currently 169th after struggling with form and fitness, most notably in 2012 after breaking his collarbone while snowboarding.
However, he qualified for the recent US Open with a second round of 64 at Walton Heath and after finishing 45th was inspired by seeing Justin Rose go on to lift the trophy at Merion.
“That’s what I want to be doing,” Casey said. “I can see the hard work Justin has put in and his steady progress up the world rankings. I know I have been working extremely hard the last few months and I feel I can play that kind of golf.
“Qualifying for the US Open made me realise how precious they (major championships) are. I think I am ready and want to win one. Watching Justin winning was fantastic, it motivates me and motivates me in the right way. I don’t get upset by it.
“I want to emulate what those guys are doing so it forces me to work a little bit harder, a little bit smarter and I know deep down that my best golf is still ahead of me.”
Lowry has the benefits of home advantage this week as he owns a house on the course, but revealed: “Family are banned from the house until Sunday afternoon.
“I always hang out with Graeme Storm and Oliver Fisher and when the tournament was announced I said they could stay with me. I’m trying to keep my routine as normal as possible this week.
“It would seem like there should be more pressure on me this week, but I’m looking at it as an advantage. I play this course week-in, week-out and know it like the back of my hand.
“I went to Baltray just happy to be there and would have been happy going home with four rounds under my belt, but obviously I came away with a lot more than that. This week and 2009 is like chalk and cheese. You can say I’m coming here trying to win the tournament but I’m trying not to talk too much about it.”