No jokes about pulling teeth, please, or staying the course. Rory McIlroy is a reluctant traveller, deriving little enjoyment from a game that tortures like few others when rhythm is lost. McIlroy endured another up and down day in Miami, the search for green shoots ongoing as he wrestles a brittle confidence that teeters on the brink of collapse with every duff shot.
McIlroy posted a first-round 73 but it could have been worse. He eagled his 10th and was still three over par with three holes of the Blue Monster course to play, but birdied two of them to finish seven behind playing partner and clubhouse leader Tiger Woods.
However, the automatic impulse that fired McIlroy to two majors and top of the world rankings is a distant memory. And so he delivered another circumspect display at Doral, peppered by the now familiar shrugs and sighs. His Honda Classic withdrawal last week heightened the scrutiny, if that is possible. Even on the putting green McIlroy warms up as if he has one eye on the ball and the other on the audience. This transfers to the range, where his practice cannot escape the critical dimension in the stands, deconstructing his every shot.
In this state of uncertainty the walk to the opening tee is a trial from which there is no protection. He said he was determined to maintain a sense of perspective during this dip in form, but there is little joy to be had when the ball is not doing what you want it to. His opening tee shot found the sand, his pulled escape narrowly avoided the water and his third ended in a greenside bunker. What for many was a comfortable birdie hole became a desperate par save for McIlroy. Starting on the back nine, he held it together for three holes before posting his first bogey at the par-3 13th after pulling his tee shot. He dropped another at the next when he found a fairway bunker off the tee. This might not have been catastrophic had it been anyone else. When his third playing partner Luke Donald hit his opening tee shot into a lake there was no thoughts of crisis. Similarly when Woods gave back successive shots at 13 and 14 after early birdies, no one called for the fire brigade.
McIlroy’s misses were not huge. It was the chronic lack of confidence as much as technique that was slowly killing his round. There was respite with a birdie at the short 15th and out of the blue an eagle at the first to return him to level par. When he was knocking down pins at the end of last year that would have been the signal to gallop on. Not here. A hat-trick of bogeys took him to the back of the field.
Woods, meanwhile, went marching on. How maddening this game is. A week ago at the Honda Classic Woods crept into the weekend on level par and closed the event well adrift on four over par. At Doral, a course on which he has won six times, the putts dropped, transforming the tournament landscape for the world No 2. It was not all pretty. There were two chunked greenside chips that failed to make the putting surface, and a two-putt from four feet at 13.
But birdies flew in at a rate almost unprecedented even for him. There were nine, one short of his personal best and good enough for a 66 and a share of the clubhouse lead on -6. With a month to the Masters, some bookies will be paying out on a Woods 15th major title already. Despite his failures last week he started this tournament as favourite. It was ever thus.
Donald closed his front nine as he started it, driving into the same lake he found at the tenth. The result was a double bogey 6. He followed that with a hat-trick of birdies, as you do when setbacks are not taken personally and the temperature of your swing is not taken after every shot. Donald closed a respectable two under par, the odd alarm quietened by his unique brand of accumulation by stealth. That is one luxury genetically unavailable to McIlroy. At least he limited the damage with a couple of birdies coming in to close on one over par.