DUBLIN, Ohio: One of Rory McIlroy’s greatest traits is his grace under fire.
The world’s second-ranked golfer didn’t have to stop and talk after firing a 78 Thursday in the Memorial Tournament, his highest opening round on the PGA Tour.
Especially when much of what’s going on in his career looks like a mess at the moment.
McIlroy, a 24-year-old from Northern Ireland, has been in a tricky spot like this before. Last year, he missed cuts in back-to-back tournaments at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in England and at the Memorial. He failed to play the weekend in four out of five events, including the U.S. Open.
He not only extricated himself from that supposed abyss, but he ran off with an 8-shot victory in the PGA Championship and closed the year with three more triumphs worldwide, claiming money titles on the PGA and European tours.
But instead of sticking with what was working, McIlroy made major changes.
He switched equipment, landing a deal with Nike that reportedly is worth $20 million to $25 million per year.
This month, he parted ways with Dublin, Ireland-based Horizon Sports Management. It was his second such departure after breaking from Chubby Chandler-led International Sports Management in October 2011.
McIlroy intends to form his own team of family and friends, headed by his father Gerry. McIlroy will follow the model used since 2003 by Adam Scott, who copied the personal office setup from Greg Norman.
With corporations like Nike, Bose and Omega knocking at McIlroy’s door, an international superstar needs no mega-firm in charge, as LeBron James would attest.
He’s opened himself up to second-guessing, but McIlroy insists that all this, including a highly publicized relationship with professional tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, is not interfering with what’s happening inside the ropes.
“No, once I’m here, I’m focused on what I need to do,” McIlroy said. “Right at the moment, it’s not happening for me.”
McIlroy’s score at Muirfield Village Golf Club left him 13 strokes behind leader Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion. McIlroy appears headed for his second consecutive missed cut at a course he ranks among his favorites, along with Firestone Country Club and Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C.
His 78 was the fifth worst he’s carded in 63 PGA Tour events, trailing only 80s at the 2012 Masters and 2010 British Open and 79s in last year’s second round of the Memorial and the 2013 Masters.
Only six players in the 120-man field shot higher than McIlroy.
His struggles included a 4-putt from 58 feet for double bogey at No. 12 en route to a 40 on the back nine (his front). His card also included six bogeys and two birdies. His putting problems — he needed 33 for the day, tied for 114th in the field — included a 4-foot miss at No. 12, a 5-foot miss at No. 13 and a 4-foot birdie miss at No. 9.
“The last four weeks have been the same,” McIlroy said. “I’ve missed a lot of short putts. It’s probably lack of confidence more than anything else. And those are the sort of putts that are important to keep the momentum of the round going.
“I don’t think I’ve played as bad as what the score suggests. The game just isn’t all there at the moment. I haven’t lived up to my own expectations this year … but I’m working hard to get the game back to where I know it can be.”
On Thursday, McIlroy hit only seven fairways. Five of his tee shots strayed to the right, which he called “my big miss all of this year.” Those big misses might prompt some to wonder whether he’s struggling to adjust to the Nike clubs.
But to McIlroy, what was most disturbing was he thought he was getting back on track, despite a poor week in bad conditions in England. After a much-criticized withdrawal at the Honda Classic in March, he had four top 10s in his next five PGA Tour events, including second in the Valero Texas Open. In his previous two in the United States, he tied for 10th in the Wells Fargo (at Quail Hollow), where he picked up his first tour victory in 2010.
“I felt like my game was good. I felt like I needed to hole some more putts and things would be OK,” McIlroy said.
“I’m pretty frustrated. I’m trying not to let it get to me. A few bad rounds of golf isn’t going to ruin anything. But I don’t have many explanations for this.”
McIlroy is not going to lose his cachet with these struggles. He’s already won two majors (his first was the 2011 U.S. Open) in his young career. He rebounded from last year’s missed-cut string with a vengeance.
And even when his confidence is at a low point, McIlroy isn’t afraid to talk, to allow the world a glimpse of his vulnerability. His willingness to reveal the chinks in his armor gives his admirers all the more reason to root for him.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the her blog at https://ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.