Gullane, Scotland: Rory McIlroy tumbled out of the 142nd Open Championship on Friday — and thank heavens for that, many people said.
It was simply too painful to watch the jaunty walk of a free-spirited golfer giving way to tics and mannerisms that told of an inner torment.
The chances of McIlroy making the cut were desperately remote after his implosion on Thursday, and the imploring shouts of ‘Go Rory’ as he made his way on to the first tee went unheeded.
He stopped to sign a couple of autographs for injured soldiers back from Afghanistan on that walk past the Muirfield clubhouse. Their plight — they came on crutches and in wheelchairs — at least provided a reminder that a game with a ball and a stick is hardly life and death.
But it was still tough enough for McIlroy, dressed in predominantly dark clothes and starting the day at 12 over par.
So unimpressed was he with his tee-shot at the par-four third that he pulled his cap down over his face. He then played out of the rough, spraying earth everywhere as he zoomed in on the greenside bunker. Now he put his hand over his face.
This was one of three bogeys on the front nine, not to mention a spectacular double bogey on the seventh, where he found himself in the bunker with no option but to play sideways. The ball rolled down embarrassingly in front of the eighth tee.
There was nothing surer than the fact he did not want to be out there, under examination in furnace heat on an oven-baked surface hardly conducive to staging a giant recovery at one of the lowest moments of a glittering career. Two majors won in swashbuckling style did not make his mind immune to the doubts crowding in on him.
A day before, he had spoken of playing as if brain-dead. Well, you did not need to be Freud to judge his state of mind from his demeanour out there yesterday.
We remember when he walked out of the Honda Classic, an unprofessional act for which he apologised. We can now see that as an insight into his unravelling mind. It seems certain he would happily have chucked it in here in the early parts of the round but he ploughed on into the evening.
What will he ponder in the barren hours of an unexpectedly free weekend? What will he talk through with his tennis star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki? This brings us — in the absence of Freud — to an instructive comparison between two of the most exciting talents in UK sport: Andy Murray, 26, and the troubled McIlroy, 24.
Murray has in place a lifestyle geared to top-level sport: a steady girlfriend, Kim Sears, who travels with him some of the time and knows how to lend her support unobtrusively, settled management in Simon Fuller’s XIX Entertainment and a coach in Ivan Lendl who is as grizzled a relic of the cold, old East as the Berlin Wall.
For McIlory, the story is strikingly different. It has been estimated that he attends 70 per cent of Wozniacki’s tournaments. He was at the Italian Open for four or five days; he hot-footed to the Eastbourne Championships from the US Golf Open to see her and then on to Wimbledon.
The point is: can he follow his own programme and hers without making too many draining demands of himself? Dashing about brings jetlag and inescapably eats into practice time.
Could it be that the toll of all this has caught up with him since he won the US PGA title by eight shots while already in a serious relationship with the Danish tennis star?
He is also in a legal wrangle with his management company Horizon Sports, the Dublin-based firm he joined after a split from Chubby Chandler’s International Sports Management in 2011. He is expected to take more control of his own business affairs with a former Horizon employee and a lawyer.
It all smacks of drift and distraction. Look at a third great home-grown talent for comparison: Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One driver who hired a private jet to pursue his recently-aborted Trans-Atlantic romance with Nicole Scherzinger. Undoubtedly, his head was turned by celebrity in a way his father, Anthony, would never have countenanced while he was involved in his son’s management.
McIlroy and Hamilton can sometimes get away with the distractions because their talent is so deep and so natural that on their day they can still shine brighter than all the rest. But the sparkles still hide a more profound truth: they may just be selling themselves short.
McIlroy, unlike Hamilton or Murray, is not an obvious fighter. He is a momentum golfer, at his best when free-wheeling. A grafter, an ugly brawler, he is not.
Being told you are so good for so long must have something to do with it.
Others say he is over-analysing something that he does best when he just goes for it. Or is it those Nike clubs that deprive him of an unquantifiable sense of ease he enjoyed with Titleist in his hand? Whatever the factors, he played on agonisingly and it was a relief when he was finally put out of his pain under an East Lothian sun that did not shine on him.