Searching for a hangover cure. Two hours before his third-round tee time, Rory McIlroy was grinding on the putting green in front of the R&A clubhouse trying to kick-start his putter. In his second round of 80 it had performed like a moped running out of petrol – putt, putt, putt. Thirty-nine putts, in fact. After his first round of 63, they must have felt like 39 stabs to the heart. Not even Julius Caesar had it that bad.
But his putter was still spluttering through the first four holes yesterday. McIlroy missed birdie putts from 10, 15, 20 and eight feet. He slapped his thigh with his glove as he walked to the fifth tee, his frustration clear for all to see. That trademark swagger was beginning to look more like a slouch.
But forget Raymond, everybody loves Rory, and his fans were trying their utmost to help him fight back. He got an ovation of whistles at the first tee that sounded like one of the clubhouse kitchen staff had left a thousand kettles to boil over. "C'mon Rory, you can do it," yelled one faithful follower. McIlroy tapped the peak of his cap and half-smiled.
Finally, a breakthrough at the fifth. There was anger in McIlroy's drive. He crunched it. Middle of the fairway. But his approach caught the wrong contour around the green and his ball looped back into a bunker. He leant on his fairway wood in disgust. No matter. A splash-out from the sand and a four-foot putt holed.
McIlroy clearly had a gameplan. He fired at every pin. He had no choice. He was playing catch-up, starting the day 11 shots off the lead. But attack suits perfectly his walk- fast-step-up-and-crack-it style. Remember that Sunday 62 in May to win the Quail Hollow Championship on the US Tour after just making the cut? Shame, then, that his playing partner was Colombia's Camilo Villegas. Off the tee, he's fine and dandy. But after that it's like watching the omnibus edition of EastEnders: slow and depressing, while waiting for something exciting to happen in the last 30 seconds.
Villegas must have driven McIlroy potty. He stopped continually to check lines, yardages, wind direction, pin positions, bunker locations, his grocery list. "Vamos, Camilo," shouted a fan. The irony blew out to sea on the Fife breeze. A police siren caused the Colombian to pause on the fifth green. Sadly it wasn't the Slow Play Police.
This is all part of the learning process for McIlroy. Learning to be patient, to concentrate, to pick the right time to attack, and know when to play safe. He has achieved so much so quickly, it is important to remember he is still just 21. Graeme McDowell, his friend and World Cup-winning partner, had some, ahem, constructive criticism for his fellow Ulsterman before grinding his way to win the US Open last month. "Rory plays gung-ho golf," McDowell said. "He doesn't put a lot of thought into what he does. He relies on sheer talent and belief. He's a young kid. He grips and rips it. He will win majors. But right now he's a little bit of a raw talent."
McIlroy has certainly been motivated by McDowell's victory but does not seem quite ready to dilute his flamboyant style. He has that no-fear arrogance of youth. He wants to do things his way. And he has bouncebackability, as American golfers like to say. Which is exactly why he can fight back from an 80 to shoot a three- under-par 69 to be four under for the championship and still hanging on to an outside shot at glory. Yesterday he missed just one fairway and two greens in regulation and had 31 putts. But five birdies from the eighth, including a tap-in at the 18th, were ruined by a double-bogey at the 17th. He caught a rogue gust and his ball bounced over the green and hit the wall.
"I don't want to be the only Irishman on the Ryder Cup team without a major," McIlroy said last week. He's going to need another Quail Hollow- style Hollywood blockbuster finale (make that Holywood, his home town) to have a chance of the Claret Jug.
"You do want to leave your mark on the game and create history," he said. "I'd like to be remembered for playing the Seve way rather than the Faldo way. Nothing against Nick, but I think Seve had a lot more fans than Nick. Seve was the catalyst for European golf. He was The Man."
Right now, Rory McIlroy is still The Kid. "I may be looking back and wishing that 80 was a 75," he said. "But if the lead is eight, nine or even 10 under, I've still got a chance. I know what I am capable of."
So the mantra for the final round? Remember Quail Hollow.Reuse content