Rory McIlroy hesitated, shook his head, and sucked his teeth, momentarily baffled by the query Golf Channel’s Steve Sands posed after the world No. 2 posted an uneven 1-over 73 in Thursday’s first round of the Shell Houston Open.
“What positives do you take away from today, Rory?” Sands asked.
Good question -- and one to which McIlroy, whose four birdies on the back nine at Redstone Golf Club failed to balance out the three bogeys and one double he carded overall, had no ready reply.
“I’m not too sure,” McIlroy finally conceded. “I felt like I hit the ball okay. I think if I just eliminate the stupid mistakes -- I made a double on the par-5 on the front nine and made a couple of silly bogeys -- if I can just not do that....I feel like I’m playing okay.”
If the question stumped McIlroy, imagine the quandary the two-time major champion must be in about the state of his game. While he has adamantly adhered to a limited schedule that has included lots of down time to kick off his post-Player-of-the-Year season, he alluded to the fact that, with Augusta looming in two weeks, Thursday marked just his ninth competitive round of stroke play worldwide this year.
“I think there’s still a little bit of a difference [between practice rounds and tourney play],” McIlroy said. “I think I’m still maybe a little bit tentative out there on the golf course and not committing to my shots fully. But I think that just takes time and takes rounds, and, hopefully, another three rounds this week, and some good scores, will give me confidence going into the Masters.”
All well and good, but in a tie for 88th place -- nine shots off the 8-under pace of 18-hole leader D.A. Points -- McIlroy has much work to do just to make it to the weekend. Clearly searching for a rhythm and a boost to his confidence, the 23-year-old Ulsterman is running out of time to pick up his game before the men play their first major.
Blame it on the equipment change, not enough tournaments, ego (as Brian Keough ardently argued earlier this week), or the typical ebbs and flows of a professional golf career, but one thing is certain, three months into the PGA Tour season -- McIlroy is not the same golfer who last year led the tour in scoring average (68.87) and carried a sub-70 average (69.68) on the European Tour as well.
Even with three consecutive under-par rounds at Doral earlier this month, McIlroy has a 71.38 average through those nine stroke-play rounds, which included a missed cut in Abu Dhabi and a withdrawal midway through his second round at the Honda Classic. Sandwich those events around a first-round loss in match play, and -- despite a strong, T8 finish at the WGC-Cadillac Championship -- it’s small wonder that, as his scores have soared, McIlroy’s swagger has sagged.
“[One’s confidence] is [tested] out here because you’ve got this wind and you’ve got water, basically everywhere you look, so you’ve got to commit to your shots and hit good ones,” he said.
If there were one positive McIlroy could point to, it would be that he fought back from a rough start that included a quick bogey on the par-four second hole after he flew the green with his approach shot from the fairway. His third shot on the par-5 eighth sailed way right and into the pond, which accounted for the double.
It appeared as if McIlroy may turn things around when he stuck a 106-yard wedge shot on the par-4 10th for a tap-in birdie, rolled in a 10-footer for another birdie on the 12th, and got to even-par with a birdie on the par-5 15th. But a bogey on 17 was disappointing, as was an 11-foot birdie attempt that rimmed the edge on 18.
“All in all, it was a tricky day,” McIlroy, who would overtake Tiger Woods for the No. 1 ranking with a win this week, summed up. “If I could have gotten it back to even-par, I would have been pretty happy.”