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rough patch Rory McIlroy needs to be reminded that a high-end Ferrari should never wander anywhere close to a junkyard


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Rory McIlroy hugs Sergio Garcia on the 18th green during the second round of The Players Championship

Rory McIlroy hugs Sergio Garcia on the 18th green during the second round of The Players Championship

Rory McIlroy hugs Sergio Garcia on the 18th green during the second round of The Players Championship

If he once purred with the smooth certainty of a Ferrari Testarossa, Rory McIlroy increasingly has the forlorn appearance of a browbeaten sedan that has been stripped and sold for parts.

At Sawgrass this week, McIlroy might have been a naked chassis mounted on blocks in the breaker's yard: Impotent, helpless, hopeless, peeled of his high-functioning parts.

Evicted from the self-styled 'fifth-major' at half-time - by which stage he lay in a tie for 142nd, 19 shots off the pace - Rory's changed circumstances brought that Coldplay verse hurtling by like a crushed Bryson DeChambeau drive.

"I used to rule the world

Seas would rise when I gave the word

Now in the morning I sleep alone

Sweep the streets I used to own."

With a net worth approaching e200 million, McIlroy won't be sweeping any streets, though at times this past week, as he dunked ball after ball into alligator-laden waters, it seemed he had to be driving the ball with a yard brush.

Seven years on from the most recent addition to his major portfolio, a PGA victory that seemed to confirm his dominion of the fairways was written on tablets of stone, Rory's story is one of diminishing aura and a search for old certainties.

Last Monday, in what must have felt like the seizing away of a psychological gold card, he was expelled from his familiar terrain among the top ten in the world rankings.

On Tuesday, 500 days will have come and gone since his last tournament victory; back in the mists of November 2019, on the same weekend the first Covid case was confirmed in Wuhan, McIlroy was also in China, surging to the HSBC Champions title.

Since then, the qualities that set him apart from the rest of the field have gone into Level 5 lockdown.

Rory has missed more cuts in the past three weeks (two) than in the entirety of 2020 and his pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday descended into an interrogation on whether he should sack his caddie and/or coach.

The Players Championship media room might have been Oprah's couch: for Meghan and Harry, read Rory and Harry (Diamond), McIlroy's lifelong friend who has been toting his bag since he split with JP Fitzgerald after the 2017 Open Championship.

To redirect a question famously posed to another Ulster sporting titan: "Where did it all go wrong, Rory?"

How is it that so many respected commentators are questioning McIlroy's competitive backbone while accusing him of hiding from the extent of his crisis?

Rory seems in denial about how the furniture of his sporting life has been violently rearranged.

Absurdly, some have pointed to the birth of his daughter, Poppy, last September as an explanation for his tailspin, as if he was the first professional athlete to father a child.

It is true, he can point to a pair of top-ten finishes in February and a body of work that includes 11 top tens since that last win.

But near misses will never be the currency in which authentic greatness is measured.

And the brutal truth is that McIlroy, once the consensus choice to inherit The Tiger's kingdom, has been relegated to the granny flat in the weeks that truly matter.

Dublin had not secured even the first of their momentous All-Ireland six-in-a-row when McIlroy's standard was last planted on any major mountaintop.

DeChambeau, the brash, home-run hitting Babe Ruth of the fairways, has stolen the post-Tiger era alpha-male tag; a younger generation led by Collin Morikawa and Victor Hovland are impatient to lay their top-dog claims.

In a month, Rory will be back at Augusta pursuing the career Grand Slam that has been achieved by just five men in the ancient game's history.

Yet, it is the sinking expression as he walks off the 18th green on the Thursday of a major that has become wearily familiar, the light in his eyes dimmed by a crushing understanding that his challenge has again been sabotaged by first round incoherence.

He is only 31 and retains the power to kindle those mesmerising afternoons that bring a gleam to the heavens.

If Rory were to decommission his clubs today, he would do so on the foothills of Mount Rushmore. Four major titles, 28 professional wins, a longer tenure at world number one than Seve or Faldo, these are deeply impressive numbers.

Equally, if slightly contradictorily, it is also true that if the clocked stopped today, there would be an overwhelming sense that he had underachieved.

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Rory McIlroy has a lot to ponder.

Rory McIlroy has a lot to ponder.

Rory McIlroy has a lot to ponder.

Rory was 25, the keys of the golfing kingdom dangling within his reach, when he raised the Wanamaker Trophy to the Kentucky skies seven years ago.

The consensus was that he was about to unleash a body of work that would sit comfortably alongside the best of Nicklaus or The Tiger's deeds.

In the seven years from 2000, the year he turned 25, Woods harvested no fewer than 11 major titles. McIlroy has spent what many believed would be the same high summer of his career walking across a fallow field.

From Augusta to Portrush, he has endured the heaviest cruelties, stepping onto so many first round or - in the case of the 2019 Open - first hole, landmines.

In that time he has accumulated tens of millions of dollars, secured a dozen top ten finishes at major tournaments (many via late surges after he had shot himself out of contention), and he was the PGA Tour Player of the Year in 2019.

These would be crowning statistics for many world class golfers. But for a once-in-a-generation talent like McIlroy they are nothing more than ho-hum.

His 79 months without a major victory is the cloud that shuts out all the sun.

It raises the volume on talk about a generational talent held back by a soft centre; on the urgent need to surround himself with figures prepared to tear him from his comfort zone rather than telling him what he wants to hear.

Somebody who will remind Rory that a high-end Ferrari should never wander anywhere close to the junkyard.

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