It was supposed to be the day Rory McIlroy re-announced himself as one of the greatest – and freest – of golf talents but the more he played, the more he sank into a horror that he could not snap, the clearer it was he needed help.
He didn’t need a swing guru of the reputation of David Leadbetter, whose searing verdict on McIlroy’s eight-over-par 79 in the first round of the 142nd Open was that it was the work of someone whose brain was “fried”.
Nor his arch-critic, Sir Nick Faldo, who hit the same soaring score when he returned to the tournament he won three times after a three-year break.
The kind of help he most needed would be best supplied, he suggested, by American sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella. The job is not to re-model a swing but mend an overburdened mind.
McIlroy has consulted Rotella in the past but never before has he faced so many questions about his continued ability to release a talent that, at 24, has brought him two superb major title victories and the status of most likely successor to the old aura of Tiger Woods.
Such excitement seemed like a forlorn remnant of the past yesterday as McIlroy’s game collapsed to the point where he putted into a bunker. “That was brain dead,” said McIlroy as he conceded that a solution to the problems that have pressed in on him all year has maybe never looked so far away.
“I don’t know what you can do,” admitted McIlroy. “You’ve just got to try to 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.
“But sometimes I feel I’m walking around out there unconscious. I just need to think more. I’m trying to focus and trying to concentrate. But I can’t really fathom it at the minute, and it’s hard to stand up here and tell you guys what’s really wrong.
“The first job now is to be here for the weekend. But the thing I need to do tomorrow is just go out there and freewheel it and try to make birdies and try to play with that little bit of whatever it is I have usually. That’s the task tomorrow even though it’s going to be hard to make birdies on that course.”
McIlroy was hardly unique in his struggles on a course baking like a soufflé in the oven heat. Reigning US Open champion Justin Rose, who after a promising start finished four over par, admitted: “In the end, I felt as though the course got the better of me but I didn’t feel any pressure after winning the US Open. I realise that will help my confidence in the future.”
For McIlroy the restoration of any of that command which carried him to unforgettable explosions of virtuosity while winning the US Open in 2011 and the PGA title last year increasingly seemed like a mirage vanishing in the fierce sunlight.
On the eve of battle he had pushed aside the fears of such eminent figures as Faldo and former Ryder Cup captain, and double major winner, Tony Jacklin that he was drifting too far away from the task of nurturing his talent. But in the high noon heat his reassurances seemed increasingly strained as the bogeys began to accumulate at an alarming rate.
As each mishap came, the look on McIlroy’s face became still more desolate. He insisted his problems are all to do with the game and the playing of it but each new crisis now draws attention to the lawsuits that have come into his business life and the growing conviction that a critical mistake was made when he changed his clubs.
The growing contention is that the extraordinary natural talent has lost its way. Certainly the verdict of Leadbetter, who re-modelled the Faldo swing that brought a total of six majors, could hardly have been more withering.
“I know Nick Faldo had a couple of things to say in the press and Rory wasn’t too happy with what was said but sometimes you have to take these home truths,” said Leadbetter.
“He’s got to re-group. It’s not as if he can take time off but he does need a break. I think his brain is fried right now. His body language is terrible. He is obviously upset with the way he is playing. He’s embarrassed almost.”
He was showing a degree of strain when he came out of the broiling heat and said: “I felt I got off to a decent start. Gave myself a couple of chances early on, made a couple of silly mental errors on four and five, dropped shots there. Made a great two on seven to get it back, had a chance for even par on nine. And then, yeah, the start of the back nine obviously wasn’t very good. I hit the right rough, which is fine but I made bogey. And then 11, you know, another three-putt there, a stupid mental error hitting it so far past. And then I let it get away, going left of the pin at 12. I let it all get away.”
That was a sprawling account of a round which went wrong – but only on the surface. What lay below it, you could see clearly enough, was a worrying amount of anguish. “You know, if I had made a birdie on nine, as I could have done so easily, I might have had a nice little bit of momentum going on the 10th tee. But no, I don’t know, even if I had made that birdie on nine, I could still have shot the same score on the back nine.” It is as though McIlroy can no longer allow himself to trust the best of himself, that game which was such a wonder of skill and natural-born optimism.
Now he fishes around for a little hope, his eyes clouded with more doubt than any of his admirers have ever seen before.
Faldo, likening himself to a genial grandfather, returned to the issue, and said that when he urged McIlroy to see the next 20 years of his life as a window of opportunity it wasn’t one filled exclusively with the need to hit golf balls. He could take a wife, have a family and perhaps a nominated charity – and he could win a whole lot of golf tournaments. Then he could enjoy the rest of his life.
McIlroy is not exactly beguiled by such simplicities. He insisted that his mind had not been carried away from the imperatives of the game. Wasn’t there too much going on in his life, he was asked.
“I don’t think that was the problem today,” he said. “All I was thinking about on the course was getting the ball down the hole in the fewest shots. That’s what I was so good at in the past and obviously that’s the point I’m trying to get back to. I’m trying to get out of walking around brain dead. It’s something I haven’t experienced before.”
He says it with a shudder, the kind a man makes when he knows it is time to ask for a little help.
First-round leaderboard (par: 71)
66 Z Johnson (US)
67 R Cabrera-Bello (Spa), M O’Meara (US)
68 MA Jiminez (Spa), D Johnson (US), B Snedeker (US), T Lehman (US), S Kapur (Ind)
69 T Hamilton (US), P Mickelson (US), A Cabrera (Arg), J Spieth (US), T Woods (US), F Molinari (It)
70 O Fisher (Eng), B Watson (US), G Fernandez-Castano (Sp), K Duke (US), M Laird (Sco), H Stenson (Swe)
71 T Aiken (SA), B Wiesberger (Aus), H Matsuyama (Jap), J Mullen (Eng), G Wright (Wal), A Scott (Aus)
E Els (+3), J Rose (+4), R McIlroy (+8), N Faldo (+8), L Donald (+9)