Rory McIlroy doesn’t want to hear others’ opinions on what might be causing the first prolonged slump of his young career.
Problem is, the talented former World No. 1 doesn't seem any closer to figuring things out for himself either.
On the eve of the 2013 British Open, the 24-year-old defiantly pushed back against public criticism from the likes of Nick Faldo that he lacked focus and purpose in fixing his struggling game. In the process, he sounded like a confident golfer on the verge of doing just that.
Yet after missing the British Open cut last week in a new low of a lowly season, McIlroy looked and sounded like anything but a man close to figuring out what’s gone so terribly wrong during a confounding season-long slump.
McIlroy finished the second round at 12 over, four shots on the wrong side of the Muirfield cut. He couldn't drive the ball straight nearly often enough, and when he did, his iron play was average at best. He struggled to make a significant putt or scramble his way out of trouble in key moments that could have kept things from getting out of control.
Bottom line, albeit on an extremely difficult course and under significant pressure to perform, McIlroy couldn't find his way to a confident swing or even a hint of positive momentum with a GPS or a direct line to Butch Harmon during his two rounds on the Scottish links course.
So seemingly with no answers in hand, McIlroy gets right back at it next week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and then the week thereafter in a critical defense of his 2012 PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club.
With such precious little time between his Open struggles and those two significant events, it’s difficult to imagine McIlroy being much of a factor at Firestone in the coming days or at the year’s final major the following week.
Given McIlroy’s short-lived disaster of a 2013 British Open, he’s now played 10 major championship rounds at a combined 28 over par and hasn't been a significant threat since he won the PGA Championship last year at Kiawah Island.
At no point during his 36 holes at Muirfield did McIlroy resemble anything close to his World No. 1 form of last year. In fact, in the aftermath of his opening-round 79, he didn't sound at all confident in regaining it over the next couple of weeks.
“I don’t know what you can do,” McIlroy said after the Open, as noted in the Toronto Sun. “You've just got to try and play your way out of it. But it’s nothing to do with technique. It’s all mental out there. And then I just need to concentrate—obviously.”
It’s difficult to imagine him turning things around in such a short period of time and putting it together at the challenging Firestone Golf Club next week and at Oak Hill the week thereafter.
It’s not because McIlroy can’t swing at the golf ball; he just doesn't have a bit of confidence in where it’s going and how to change that.
Indeed, 2013 has been a steady mental health "plank walk" for McIlroy, who seemed so solid before making an equipment change from Titleist to Nike Golf this past January.
He walked off the course midway through his second round at the Honda Classic back in March. He broke a club in frustration in the final round of the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in June. At the Irish Open, he admitted to reporters he was “feeling a bit lost" (h/t Golf Channel).
Those mistakes, coupled with a winless drought that is poised to mark a year anniversary at Oak Hill, have led to significant public commentary as to his commitment and approach to the game, which have stung the 24-year-old.
Yet listening to McIlroy at Muirfield a week ago, it’s hard to argue that whatever he’s doing on his own to cure his confidence issues simply is not working.
"Sometimes I feel like I’m walking around out there unconscious. I just need to think more,” McIlroy said, per the Toronto Sun. “I’m trying to focus and trying to concentrate. But I can’t really fathom it at the moment, and it’s hard to stand up there and tell you guys what’s really wrong.”
It’s more accurate that McIlroy really doesn't have the time to tell us what’s wrong, because beginning this coming Thursday, he has to get back out there and hope against hope he’s somehow figured it out.
With all due respect to the FedEx Cup, the next two weeks are really golf’s final measuring-stick events between now and the Tour Championship in September.
They’re also McIlroy’s final two opportunities to reverse what has been such an unexpectedly awful season. Given his current form, there’s certainly no guarantee he’ll be around for the FedEx finale in Atlanta two months from now.
To be honest, even a win there won’t erase a potential poor performance in a fourth major this year should things go sideways at Oak Hill as they did at Merion and Muirfield.
It’s ironic, then, that the tournament that last raised McIlroy’s profile may well be his last stand for rebuilding it just one year later.
McIlroy can say anything he wants about others’ opinions or his own self-confidence, but just as it did at the Open Championship a week ago, his play at Firestone and Oak Hill will tell us all we need to know.
It’s safe to say our expectations are low as McIlroy prepares for those significant tests. Considering what we saw and heard from the Irishman at Muirfield a week ago, it’s hard to imagine his are any higher.
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