Is love distracting McIlroy?
IN the eyes of arguably the most amiable young superstar in all of sport, there is a flash of anger when it is suggested - as it is now with increasingly upturned volume - that his inspired and instinctive drive to conquer the world is roughly several sets and love-40 down here at the 141st Open.
Rory McIlroy, who slightly more than a year ago appeared to have inherited the world of golf, earlier this week snapped - by his standards it was almost a snarl - "there is no distraction" when it was implied there was a link between a crash in his form and his romantic entanglement with Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki.
He says, with the sharpest emphasis, "no".
Yet the circumstantial evidence is mounting. Four missed cuts in his previous six outings - including the US Open, which he not so much won as engulfed 13 months ago - say, yes, something has taken McIlroy away from the glowing edge of his most beautiful game.
Yesterday there was another dip in the McIlroy stock value when he kept his place in the tournament by the barest margin, shooting a five-over-par 75 after landing in a waterlogged bunker beside the ninth hole and suffering a double bogey.
At three under on the first tee, McIlroy was perfectly placed to make a challenge for the lead that was so spectacularly usurped by the obscure but extremely agreeable 31-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee, Brandt Snedeker. Yet he never began to come to terms with the wet course - and pin settings which reflected official fretting over some of the low scoring of the first round.
Set against his second straight failure to make a significant impact on the Open after his superb first-round 63 and tie for third place at St Andrews two years ago, there was a certain irony last night as Tiger Woods, who might be described as the game's ultimate victim of distractions beyond the fairway, produced some more evidence that at the age of 36 his attempt to re-make his game might just be nearing some striking success.
While the Tiger prowled again with considerable intensity, McIlroy, 13 years his junior, had rarely looked so detached from the image of the young master - one who in the few months between the US Masters and the US Open last year completed one of the most astonishing resurrections in any branch of major sport.
McIlroy emerged from his Augusta ordeal, when he crumbled so disastrously on the back nine when the Green Jacket was his for the collecting, playing golf of breathtaking creative brilliance. It came in a flood of spontaneity. It persuaded golf that it was experiencing a phenomenon to rank with the young Tiger, who dismantled the field at Augusta as a 21-year-old in 1997 before marching to 13 more major tournament victories.
Yesterday there were times when the glory McIlroy achieved at the Congressional Club in Washington seemed almost like a freak of memory - and not least when he fashioned the chance of a birdie on the 18th green, then mis-directed his putt so badly it inevitably brought another expression of anguish.
Earlier he had looked down at his shoes and murmured "no". It was not hard to understand his disbelief.
Afterwards he put on an impressively brave face - not least when meeting again 16-year-old Jason Blue, who was hit by a McIlroy ball during the first round.
McIlroy paid for a hotel room for the boy, who was preparing to spend the night in a tent, saying: "I thought it was the least I could do. I didn't want him sleeping the night in a tent when he's got a massive gash in the side of his head. Yeah, I put him and his mate up for the night and gave them a bit of cash to go for some food last night. If someone gave me a big hole in my head I wouldn't be too happy."
McIlroy managed to conceal some of the worst of his own despair at this latest collapse of his game - and he even held out the possibility that somehow he might find a way back into a meaningful corner of the tournament.
That seemed an even more remote possibility than world No 1 Luke Donald's chances of translating an impressively fashioned 68 into authentic evidence that he might be on the point of making his first weighty challenge for a major tournament.
McIlroy said: "Obviously Snedeker is a little bit ahead at the minute but I feel like if I can maybe get it back to where I was at the start of today, somewhere around there, three or four under going into Sunday, I think I'd still have a great chance."
Certainly there seemed to be no inclination to seek excuses.
He was asked if he had ever before played with water in the bunkers, and when he said no, it led, naturally enough, to the question of whether the course was unplayable.
"No, not all," he said.
"The course is very playable. You just need to keep out of the bunkers, which is the whole idea anyway. So no, the course is totally fine. I don't see any problem with water in the bunkers."
What is tough is when you're really trying to get something going and it's not really happening. You're sort of just trying to force it a little bit - and that's what I did today.
"I hit some good shots out there. The seven-iron into the last was a great shot. I hit good shots out there. I just hit bad ones at the wrong time.
"It depends on how far I am back going into the weekend - it looks like I'll be at least 10 shots back - but I wouldn't mind seeing a little bit of wind."
Last night he was working with some vigour on the driving range with his coach Michael Bannon. He was doing something which last year might have been deemed almost superfluous. He was going back to the mechanics of a game he had mastered so beautifully when he won his first major and gave an overwhelming indication that it was, surely, the first of many.
But of course you never truly master golf. You can push back its boundaries, you can convince some hard critics that you may well have re-defined it, but always there is a time when it gets the better of you.
This is the current ordeal of McIlroy, who also said: "Yeah, it wasn't the best of my days out there. I was doing pretty well just to hang in there around par on the front nine - and then making a double on the ninth was the turning point in the round and I couldn't really recover from that.
"I wasn't committing to my tee-shots and I was in two minds a few times about what shots to hit off the tee. It's something I will need to improve on tomorrow, just commit to it and try to get the ball on the fairway."
It didn't seem too much of an ambition for the player who not so long ago made golf look so easy. But then around the time he was declaring it, the Tiger was making bogey on a par-five hole he once would have invaded.
In other circumstances, Rory McIlroy might have sympathised. Instead, he marched to his practice and back to the toughest days of his golfing life.