Rory McIlroy struggles (again) en route to an opening 80 at Royal County Down
By Stephanie Wei under European PGA Tour

It’s an understatement to say Rory McIlroy struggled in the first round of the Irish Open at Royal County Down in tough conditions (or pretty standard if we’re talking about the local weather). Between the added time and effort of playing host this week, with the proceeds from the tournament benefitting his charity (he also said he’d donate any winnings), and perhaps the pressure of competing in front of a home crowd in Northern Ireland, the world no. 1 opened with a nine-over 80.

“it’s (playing) tough,” said McIlroy following his round. “It’s not quite as tough as I made it look out there, but you just gotta put your ball in the right position. I felt like off the tee, it was fine. If you start to miss greens, you can make it very difficult for yourself. So I just missed it in the wrong spots and struggled from there.”

McIlroy kicked off the morning with a promising tee shot on the par-3 10th to 15 feet, but he missed the birdie putt and settled for par. He dropped a shot on the following hole, the difficult par-4 11th. On the following hole, he reached the par-5 in two, but failed to convert for birdie, three-putting for a par. Things really started to go awry starting on the par-4 15th and he made four consecutive bogeys to wrap up his first nine holes, posting a five-over 41 on the more gettable side.

“I really put myself behind the eight ball today because the back nine is the more scoraable nine here,” he said. “To go out there and shoot five-over on that nine, I couldn’t really do much on the front nine — it was playing so tough.”

After that, he simply couldn’t get anything going and carded four more bogeys on the front to shoot 39 on that side. The par-3 7th sort of sums things up — on Tuesday, one player said he didn’t see how anyone could hold the green, so if you want to see a classic sh*tshow, just grab a beer and take a seat there. McIlroy’s tee shot went left and kicked even further left to the adjacent sixth fairway. He then had a full wedge shot into the green and two-putted for a routine bogey. Finally, he rolled in a 10-footer for par after running it past the hole with his lag putt to keep the damage to nine-over for the day.

McIlroy only found four of 14 fairways and nine of 18 greens, but aside from his mediocre ballstriking — particularly with his irons — he struggled on the greens, needing 36 putts. He failed to make a single birdie all day.

“I felt like I put myself in good positions off the tee, and my iron play, I was sort of caught in between trying to play two ways. I hit it really well on the range and was keeping the ball down and I was hitting like lovely little half shots the whole time, and I got out on the golf course, and the wind wasn’t up that much at the start and I felt like I didn’t need to hit those shots so much, so I was sort of caught in between what shot to play out there a little bit,” said McIlroy.

“Then, my poor iron play led to missed greens, which led to giving myself a lot of eight- to 12-footers for par and that led to missing all of them. So, it was pretty good off the tee and it just got worse as I got closer to the green…

“My putting and my speed was off. I wasn’t reading (the greens) properly. I sort of just lost confidence in the greens as the round went on. Nothing went right. I was really trying to birdie the last to try and break even, but it didn’t quite happen.”

McIlroy posted the worst score in the morning wave (yep, DFL!) and he’s in danger of missing the cut for the second week in a row. He’s also gone home early in the past two editions of this event. This is his fifth consecutive start on the tours in the U.S. and Europe and he’s won two of his last four events, the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship and the Wells Fargo Championship, and notched a top 10 at The Players Championship.

“(My goal) is just to make the cut,” said McIlroy. “I’ve missed the cut the last two years at the Irish Open, so I don’t want to make it three in a row. I want to at least go out there tomorrow and fight for it, and if I can sneak in there, that’ll be great.”

He seemed slightly embarrassed to be receiving what he described as “sympathy” claps from the sold-out crowd. McIlroy plans to regroup for Friday afternoon and sounded somewhat reluctantly optimistic for his chances to still make the cut.

“That’ll be my goal starting off tomorrow is to try and make some birdies, make my first birdie of the tournament at some point and try and just claw my way back towards the cut line and see what I can do,” he said.

“I just want to go out there tomorrow and give them something to cheer about and not just have sympathy claps as I did coming off the ninth green.”

McIlroy insisted his poor performance didn’t have anything to do with feeling too much pressure in front of the massive home crowd at his native event.

“I don’t think I was trying too hard,” he said. “If anything, it was almost, I don’t want to say the other way. It’s my fifth week in a row, and I’m not saying I felt flat out there, but just sort of trying to muster something up to get myself going and get some sort of momentum was difficult.

“You know what to expect when you come to an Irish Open, and I’ve said for the last couple of years I want to try and embrace it and relish the fact that you’re here and everyone wants to see you do well. So you should be able to use that to your advantage. I just haven’t been able to do that as of yet.”

McIlroy hasn’t carded an 80 on any major tour since the final round of the 2011 Masters, where he gave up a four-shot lead after 54 holes.

Meanwhile, Rickie Fowler, who played alongside McIlroy and Martin Kaymer, had a much better day. (Fowler and McIlroy competed against each other as amateurs in the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down.) Fowler was two-under through 12, but he made two bogeys coming in to post level par — not bad considering the conditions and difficulty of the course.

“I got off to a good start,” said Fowler.  “I left a couple out there early, but just really tried to keep moving forward and stay patient.  Not very many opportunities to play aggressive today.  Just tried to have fun and wait for some of these storms going through and the rain and the wind.  Just have to kind of put some things behind you and keep moving forward, so I was able to do that fairly well, got off to a good, solid start and looking forward to tomorrow.”

Fowler was sympathetic to McIlroy’s woes.

“it’s tough to see,” he said. “You don’t want to see someone struggle and not the start that he was looking for this week.  So I’m assuming that it’ll be a little different day tomorrow for him.

“That’s golf.  We’ve all been through it, and I’m sure we’ll go out and have some fun, hopefully feed off of each other tomorrow.”

Danny Willett, Soren Kjeldsen and and Emilliano Grillo had the best rounds of the morning, with all three shooting a solid two-under 69. Willett, who finished third at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship to earn Special Temporary Membership on the PGA Tour, also played in the Walker Cup here in 2007.