Charles Dickens was nowhere in sight, but the opening lines of “A Tale of Two Cities” were never more apposite than during a breezy and challenging third round of the Emirates Australian Open at The Australian. “The worst of times” was the unlikely fate of Rory McIlroy, a series of poor club and shot selections sending the world number one inexorably down the leader board. But it was “the best of times” for Brett Rumford, Greg Chalmers and Jordan Spieth, the three men on five under par who head the 78-strong field with 18-holes to play.
On a day when even modest ambition was best tempered with caution, patience – or lack of it – proved to be the most important club in the bag for the various contenders. And it was that basic quality which was most strikingly absent in a strangely impetuous McIlroy. Gone was the imperious figure who doubled his tally of major championships to four over the last few months, replaced by a young man closely resembling the naïve and nervous golfer who led the 2011 Masters Tournament by four strokes after 54-holes only to shoot a disastrous 80 on the final day.
“Right after that event is when I noticed the biggest change in Rory,” says Tim Barter of the UK’s Sky Sports, who has interviewed the young Irishman more than any other broadcaster or journalist. “His body language changed that day. He wasn’t his usual confident self. He made the mistake of trying to protect his lead. And we all saw what happened.
“But he learned a lot from that experience. Look at the way he walks onto the first tee at tournaments these days. It’s very much, ‘I’m Rory McIlroy’ when he appears.”
Still, that inherent cockiness may not be enough to see the 25-year old Ulsterman retain the title he so memorably annexed a year ago. He will certainly have to avoid the triple-bogey – double-bogey run that scarred his card on holes nine and ten. Having talked all week of how “there is a low score out there,” nothing less than near perfection is now going to be enough for McIlroy to add his name to the Stonehaven Trophy for a second time.
“It was a tough day obviously,” was his immediate verdict on the 76 that leaves him one over par for the week and six shots behind the leading trio. “The wind was up. I was doing okay, steady enough, until I got to the ninth. I hit a wayward tee-shot into what I thought was a decent enough lie that I could advance the ball. But I didn’t realise what I was standing on is not like dirt or earth. It was more like carpet. So the ball went underneath the carpet. Had it been a normal surface it would have been alright, but down there it was impossible.
“So that added up to a seven. Then I did what I did last week in Dubai (when he double-bogied two holes in succession during the third round of the DP World Tour Championship) and compounded that error with another just about as bad. I got a huge flier with a wedge. The ball pitched at 160-yards into the wind which is ridiculous. Over the last few holes I was just trying to hang on really.”
That the reigning Open and USPGA champion did, negotiating the last eight holes in a steady enough level par. But that wasn’t enough – not nearly enough – to lighten his mood. McIlroy wasn’t surrendering his title, but he was coming close.
“I need a fast start tomorrow to have a chance,” he admitted. “It depends too on what the guys ahead of me do. I need some help. But the greens have been firmer every day. So a low score is higher than it was. I still feel like I can shoot a good one. I just don’t know if that will be enough. I’ll be trying my best. It’s the last round of the season so it would be nice to make it a good one.”
Maybe. But a great one is what is required.