Rory McIlroy isn’t talking like the World No. 2. He isn’t playing like it, either.
More like the World 200.
Phil Mickelson by comparison looks like he’s ready to throw the Open Championship monkey off his back and win his first Claret Jug.
McIlroy limped around Muirfield in 79 shots, 10 worse than playing competitor Mickelson. The Northern Irishman conceded to being “brain dead,” “walking around unconscious” and “unfocused.” He played like it, too.
Mickelson didn’t look brain dead. His was fully engaged as he plotted his way around Muirfield.
McIlroy had two double bogeys in his round, one from the middle of the 12th fairway. Former World No. 1s don’t make 6s on par 4s from the middle of the fairway.
McIlroy did it with ease.
His tee shot found the fairway, but he inextricably went for a back-left pin, only to see his ball roll off the green and down a slope. He needed two chip shots to get the ball on the green. Two putts later and he’d made his first double bogey of the day.
His second came at the 15th. Bunkered off the tee, McIlroy played a smart second shot just short of the green. However, he putted into a bunker and needed three more shots to get into the hole.
“It’s just so brain dead. I feel like I’ve been like that the last couple of months. It’s something I’ve never experienced before.”
McIlroy didn’t actually strike the ball that poorly. He hit only five of 14 fairways and 10 of 18 greens, but that can happen on a course as firm and fast as Muirfield. It was just what he called “silly mental errors.”
By the 16th tee, he turned to caddie J.P. Fitzgerald and said, “I have no idea what I’m doing wrong.”
Coach Michael Bannon walked all 18 holes with McIlroy. By the time his player reached the 16th tee, Bannon stood beside the green looking as lost as McIlroy. Bannon stared intently into the grass with his hands clenched like a man either in prayer or experiencing quiet desperation.
Quite what Bannon can do to put his man right is debatable. McIlroyhas no idea.
“I wish I could stand here and tell you what I need to do to put it right. I don’t know what I can do. I’ve just got to try to play my way out of it.
“It’s got nothing to do with technique,” McIlroy said. “It’s just mental. Sometimes I think I’m walking around out there unconscious.
“I feel like I’ve made a lot of progress, but then shooting a round like this you’ve got to go back to the drawing board. It’s a very alien feeling to me.”
Missing cuts also is an alien feeling for McIlroy, but he is on a path to head home early unless he can turn things around quickly.
Mickelson was the polar opposite to his young playing competitor. He played smart golf all day. For example, while McIlroy went for the sucker pin on 12, Mickelson landed his ball short and right of the flag and two-putted for a routine par.
“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.”
Mickelson’s score might have been a couple of shots better if not for some questionable hole locations. Muirfield is playing hard and fast, just the way the R&A likes its Open venues. However, officials added a little spice with some first-round hole locations.
“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,” Mickelson said. “The pins were very edgy, on slopes and whatnot, that the guys that played early had a huge, huge break. Even without any wind, it’s beyond difficult.
“Hopefully they (the R&A) will let go their ego and set it up reasonable.”
Mickelson kept his own ego in check by not firing at silly flags. If he does that for the next three days, he might be called “champion golfer of the year” Sunday. As for McIlroy, he’s probably going to have to wait for that accolade.