GULLANE, Scotland — Nick Faldo shot an 8-over-par 79 on Thursday at the British Open. Rory McIlroy shot an 8-over-par 79 on Thursday at the British Open.
Only the birthday boy was prepared to joke about it.
“You wait until you get the real golfers in here!” the semi-retired Faldo said in the interview tent at Muirfield on the day he turned 56.
McIlroy is rightly considered the realest of deals. At age 24, he has won two major championships and signed a Tiger Woodsian deal with Nike worth a reported $200 million.
But he is in the midst of a rough patch, and he looked and sounded particularly adrift after his opening round came unhinged on the back nine.
McIlroy, despite ample exposure to links golf growing up in Northern Ireland, has often struggled at the Open, but this was a new level of suffering on, to be fair, a very tricky course.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m walking around out there and I’m unconscious,” McIlroy said, avoiding eye contact but not the line of questioning. “I just need to try and think a little bit more. I’m trying. I’m trying to focus. I’m trying to concentrate, but yeah, it’s just, I can’t really fathom it at the minute and it’s hard to stand up here and tell you guys what’s really wrong.”
After winning the PGA Championship last year and winning two FedEx Cup playoff events, McIlroy signed the Nike deal that came with a change of clubs and equipment.
He has yet to win a tournament in 2013, which is no cause for alarm. A seven-month wait is no drought in a game as deep at the top as men’s golf. But there can be no doubt that his season has had some big dips and no peak.
His unraveling on Thursday began with bogeys on 10 and 11 and a double bogey on 12. A birdie on 13 was a false dawn. There would be another double on 15 as he badly misjudged a long putt that went into a bunker.
It was that kind of back nine, and none of the 86 other players with morning tee times had a worse score than McIlroy’s 42. He was duly asked if he could remember the last time he had putted a ball into a trap.
“Again, that’s just thoughtless, just so, like, brain-dead, seriously,” McIlroy said of his putt. “I feel like I’ve been walking around out there like that for the last couple months. I’m trying to get out of it. I just don’t quite know how.”
Faldo, the English star playing in his first tour event since missing the cut at the 2010 Open at St. Andrews, had plenty of suggestions for McIlroy on Monday and a few more on Thursday, reiterating that McIlroy should eliminate all but the essential and focus on his golf and the most important people in his life.
For Faldo, once No. 1 in the world, a golfer has a window for excellence. Best not to squander it.
“Just keep it minimal,” Faldo said. “Don’t go off into the business world, because he’s got tons of time for that. If you’re going to retire somewhere in your 40s — who knows, with 10 majors? — you’ll be a pretty darned good businessman for the next probably 50 years of your life. I got involved in business, and I know it completely changed my mind-set.”
Earlier in the week, McIlroy responded to Faldo by saying, “Nick should know how hard this game is at times.”
If Faldo had forgotten, he certainly should remember now.
Faldo’s highlight came on the first tee before he had hit so much as a shot. It came as he stood, a club back in his hand, and gazed out from under his visor at the spectators a few rows deep; at the golden rough swaying in the breeze; at the long view of the East Lothian countryside.
But only a stupendous chip out of a fairway bunker with a 9-iron allowed him to get close enough to salvage a par and avoid an 80. But there were still too many poorly judged chips and putts. “I’ve got no touch,” Faldo said, almost pleadingly.
“All I’m trying to say is I’ve been there; seen it; I know what can happen,” Faldo said about McIlroy’s struggle. “Right from the word go, I thought the equipment change was very dangerous. He looks a different person, let alone a different golfer right now,”