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Rory McIlroy’s spirits drops as he fails to take advantage of benign Royal Birkdale

On the face of it, there would seem to be something pre-ordained about Rory McIlroy’s charge at the lead failing to soar on an eerily peaceful Saturday afternoon, two days after he rescued his tournament from ignominy in the roaring rain.

It was as if the missing components to make the Ulster-born genius play to his maximum were a howling gale and buckets of adversity, while those interloping Americans would surely drown on the links in their soaked jackets on the drenched Mersyside coast. After all, McIlroy grew up in County Down, across the Irish Sea, and sat through many a baby hurricane watching Ulster play rugby at Ravenhill, as well as learning his golf on the parkland hills overlooking the Antrim coast, which is lovely but not exactly Miami Beach.

Yet the stereotype does not quite click. McIlroy, Irish freckles and all, has always loved the sun on his back. At windy St George’s in 2011, he said: “These conditions, I don’t enjoy playing in really. That’s the bottom line.” He has embraced, instead, the beautifully kept plots of paradise on the PGA Tour, winning three of his four majors there, and calls Florida home. When he won his Open at Royal Liverpool three years ago, the weather was benign and unthreatening. So he should have murdered Royal Birkdale on Saturday.

But he didn’t. Jordan Spieth did. And Matt Kuchar sort of did. And Brooks Koepka did just fine, as well. The Americans outplayed the locals at links golf, albeit on a day that might have been plucked out of a Palm Springs postcard. Then, after enduring so many ups and downs, McIlroy concluded, perversely: “I need to post a really low score in bad conditions tomorrow and hope the leaders slip a little.”

So what gives? The root cause of McIlroy’s mini-crisis properly lies not in the skies but in the cracked rib, injured in the off-season hitting golf balls, which then hindered his swing in the play-off for the South African Open in January. That tore seven weeks out of his season. In May, the injury forced another withdrawal from the Tour. On his return, he missed three cuts in four tournaments. And here he is, punching as hard as he can but fighting his own game as much as those of others.

His fellow Ulsterman Darren Clarke, who knows all about bad weather and bad luck, observed after watching McIlroy’s five bogeys in the first six holes of the tournament: “It is sad to watch. He is struggling at the moment. The game is winning.” Yet he rose to the challenge on the back nine and then again on Foul Friday, getting himself into a decent position when many others were falling. He had given himself a chance. On Saturday, however, he did not grab it with conviction, and you could see the frustration in his face.

Fourth last out of the traps alongside the American Gary Woodland, McIlroy began with a birdie to go two under, when a gap wedge got him close enough to the hole for a regulation roll-in. This is always a good sign, because his delicacy around the greens is the hallmark of his skill – as well as his powerful driving. There were still 12 players under par at this stage, with scores tumbling all over the links, but this was a perfect start for McIlroy, who was not exactly right among them, but lurking.

A bogey on three slowed his charge, which was cause to wonder, but he chipped in over a ridge at the 4th to bring the gallery to their feet. At the 8th, he misjudged his greenside rescue effort and gave a shot back, but he still seemed in the mood to do damage.

Intelligence will have seeped through of Spieth’s awesome putting a couple of holes behind him and, aware that this is still the weakest spot of his own game, McIlroy had to get his head down to eat into a gap that stood at five strokes. Ahead of his main rivals on the course, he trailed them still on the scoreboard: three behind Kuchar, two adrift of Koepka.

McIlroy turned in 32. There was still plenty to play for. The back nine is where he saved his tournament on day one after dropping five shots in the first six holes, and the vibes were promising. The greens were running at a relatively slow 10 and, so perfectly and lovingly have they been clipped, good putters were always going to make a killing. McIlroy is a good putter, but he hardly needs reminding he has not lived up to his reputation this season.

On the 10th – one of the course’s easiest stretches – he pulled his tee shot, had to fight his way out of a bunker and was faced with a 10-footer for bogey. The ball curled an inch by, sending him back to one under, eight behind Spieth, who had slotted home yet another birdie. There was now a significant disparity between them in form, numbers and prospects.

As McIlroy said: “I couldn’t have got off to a better start, really rolling. The bogey stopped me in my tracks a little bit, but I bounced back with a birdie on nine. On 10, I hit a three iron off the tee, which was just the wrong club, a huge mental error. The double bogey there was a real kick in the teeth.”

There was another familiar and unwelcome factor to compute: the return of the wind and rain. The forecast said it was half an hour away, enough time to squeeze in a finish before the struggle with the elements began. Or would McIlroy welcome another fight with the skies above and the soaked ground beneath? He got neither. The thunder and lightning were still 20 miles away when he grabbed a fifth birdie on the 542-yard par-five 15th. His spirits lifted. And then the first of the rain dumped on Birkdale. But the weather seemed irrelevant now. The wind did not get up enough to ruffle even an umbrella.

On the horizon, a rainbow broke through the enormous grey curtain. But it did not fall on McIlroy. Spieth, his putter still red hot, went to 10 under on the 15th. His partner and compatriot Kuchar birdied to stay a shot behind him (before a double bogey at the 16th spoilt his card). Koepka remained in touch.

Woodland, a bit player, birdied the 17th. McIlroy did not. His shoulders drooped. The rain fell. Coming home, he had to hit hard out of light hay to the green and hung on to post a regulation 69. “He’s turned the corner compared to the golf he’s played the last month,” Paul McGinley observed, kindly.