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'punch drunk' Rory McIlroy is quickly running out of road to produce a Masters plan

Hype train derailed ahead of Augusta in firm and fast conditions at Bay Hill

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Rory McIlroy hits from a bunker on the ninth hole during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Photo: John Raoux/AP

Rory McIlroy hits from a bunker on the ninth hole during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Photo: John Raoux/AP

Rory McIlroy hits from a bunker on the ninth hole during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Photo: John Raoux/AP

Pádraig Harrington loves Majors and he loves them even more when he hears the high-pitched whine of a pro golfer on a rant.

The more he heard his peers moan and groan in the locker room about the thickness of the rough, the speed of the greens, the intensity of the rain, or the unfairness of the set-up, the more confident he became.

With half of the field wishing they were somewhere else and half the remainder lacking the tools to compete, his rivals for victory were suddenly reduced from 150-odd to a couple of dozen.

Showing your opponents your fears and weaknesses is never a great plan, even if the complaints are well justified, as was the case in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

Rory McIlroy prides himself on speaking from the heart, but in talking about feeling “punch drunk” and “frustrated” after two-and-a-half days of “crazy golf”, the general impression was of a man lacking control of his game with four weeks to go to the Masters.

It doesn’t take much to stoke the fires in the McIlroy hype train and it was puffing along at full tilt on Thursday after the Holywood star played exquisitely in perfect early morning conditions and carded a seven-under 65 standing on his head. His driving was god-like and he holed putts for fun, gaining 1.776 strokes on the field with the blade.

Twenty-four hours later, he was floundering and while he escaped with a level-par 72, he lost more than two shots to the field on the “glassy” greens.

“The ball skids sometimes on breaking putts and doesn’t take the break, and then it does roll pretty early and then it takes the break early,” he said. “So it sort of becomes a bit of a guessing game when they get this glassy. But it’s all part of the fun.”

He made no mention of fun when he lost all his momentum on Saturday, slaloming around the course that Arnie built in 76, missing ten greens.

“If you don’t hit the fairway, it’s almost impossible to hit a green,” he said.

After closing with another 76 that included a three-putt from four feet and one of the smoothest club snaps ever televised, he couldn’t hold back on Sunday.

Yes, he wasn’t the only player to lose the plot on greens that were not only as fast as anything you will find at Augusta National next month, they also had the firmness of quick-drying cement and were protected by deep, juicy rough.

Three years ago in Scotland, McIlroy said he was sick of European Tour courses not being set up hard enough after shooting 15-under par in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and failing to crack the top 25.

On Sunday, he was making veiled threats about the top players boycotting Bay Hill if the course set-ups are not eased.

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“They need to do something about it,” he warned “There’s a lot of guys that sort of stay away this week to get ready for next week.”

McIlroy complained it was impossible to find a green from the rough and yet he found 34 of 56 fairways to rank tied 19th compared to just 29 for the tournament winner Scottie Scheffler, who trounced the field with his approach play, gaining 8.066 shots with his irons, more than five shots better than McIlroy.

McIlroy lost just over one stroke to the field and six shots to Scheffler on the greens for the week. He may well turn it all around for the Masters, but if it’s firm and windy, his chances of completing the career Grand Slam will be severely reduced.

Firm and fast conditions usually lead to high-scoring affairs, it’s no surprise McIlroy has yet to win a tournament in the single digits under par. It’s even more of a problem when the player himself sees the conditions as conspiring against him.

“Sort of the way the conditions are, it makes you feel as if you’re not playing as good as you are,” he said. “Like I’m playing good. I’m hitting good shots. I’m swinging the club well. I’m chipping well. I’m putting well. But it can knock your confidence whenever the conditions are like this.”

Roll on The Players Championship, where a few good rounds will have the McIlroy Masters hype train firing on all cylinders for Augusta National. While low-scoring affairs are more frequent nowadays, the winning score in the Masters has been nine-under or higher no fewer than 54 times in 85 editions – a whopping 63.5pc of the time.

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