Where’s Rory McIlroy? was a question the world’s second-ranked golfer was asking about himself after flailing to an 8-over 79 in Thursday’s opening round of the British Open.
While McIlroy said he was "walking around out there unconscious" and questioned the state of his psyche, world No. 5 Phil Mickelson navigated his way around Muirfield as confidently as he ever has on a links course despite his anger over conditions he considered unfair.
It was as if the two golfers were playing different games -- McIlroy not really hitting terrible shots but ending up with double bogeys from perfect lies in the centers of fairways by going right at flagsticks, while Mickelson played strategic golf on a track that played extremely firm and fast.
At the end of the day, Lefty was at 2-under and in contention for his first Open Championship title, and Rory was in the market for a shrink.
"It’s just so brain dead," McIlroy told reporters after coming in five shots from the bottom on a day.
The par-4 15th hole was emblematic of the struggles of the two-time major champion, whose winless 2013 season went from horrid to "embarrassing," according to ESPN analyst Paul Azinger. He wisely came up short with his approach shot from a bunker and proceeded to putt into another bunker and take three more strokes to record his second double bogey of the day.
"I have no idea what I’m doing wrong," McIlroy said to his caddie on the 16th tee, according to Golfweek’s Alistair Tait. His long-time swing coach Michael Bannon, who accompanied his young charge all day, appeared equally clueless, Tait noted.
"I wish I could stand here and tell you what I need to do to put it right, because I feel like I’ve got the shots," said McIlroy, who noted he might re-up with sports psychologist Bob Rotella, whom he’s worked with before, for a tune-up. "I don’t know what I can do. You’ve just got to try to play my way out of it but it’s nothing to do with technique. It’s all mental out there."
McIlroy’s score, by the way, equaled that of 56-year-old Nick Faldo, who, despite his constant carping about the Northern Irishman’s equipment change, claimed there was no rift between the two.
"I’m friends with Rory, don’t write it any other way. I’ve known him since he’s 12," Faldo told reporters after his lackluster round. "I’m like big granddad, here, saying exactly those things. Just give it your full attention when you want to play golf ... I’m trying to give him a little caring, loving help here," Faldo contended.
As for Mickelson, his vehement complaints about what he charged were unfair pin placements threatened to overshadow his stellar round.
"I played well," Mickelson said. "I had a spurt there in the middle of the round where I had some technical difficulties and hit some poor shots, but I was able to make pars and turned it around."
The owner of four major championship trophies believes he could have gone much lower if the R&A, which runs the British Open, had been more gracious about its course set-up.
"I got very lucky to play early today because as the day wore on and we got to the back nine, about a third of every green started to die and became brown," said Mickelson, who, along with Ian Poulter, slammed officials for making the track too hard. "The pins were very edgy, on the slopes and whatnot, that the guys that played early had a huge, huge break because even without any wind it’s beyond difficult."
Mickelson, who drew a Friday afternoon tee time, beseeched tour honchos to come to their senses.
"Hopefully they [the R&A] will let go their ego," Mickelson said, "and set it up reasonable."
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