SOUTHPORT, England — Rory McIlroy was standing on the sixth tee and already doubting his chances of making the weekend at the British Open when his negative thoughts were interrupted by his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald.
"He reminded me who I was, basically," said McIlroy, a four-time major champion. "He said: ‘You’re Rory McIlroy, what are you doing?"’
Initially, his response was passive.
"Whatever," replied McIlroy, who had bogeyed four of his first five holes and was about to drop another shot at No. 6.
But then came the recovery.
McIlroy got up and down from a front bunker for par at the short 7th hole, rolled in a 15-foot putt for par at the 8th hole having pushed his drive into the rough, and birdied four of his last eight holes to shoot a 1-over 71.
One of the biggest roars of the day at Royal Birkdale came from the giant grandstands at No. 18 when McIlroy made a 15-footer for birdie, pumping his fist when the ball fell into the cup.
"I still feel I’m in the golf tournament," said McIlroy, who was six shots off the lead held by American players Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka and Matt Kuchar.
McIlroy has missed the cut at three of his last four tournaments — the U.S. Open, the Irish Open and the Scottish Open — and said he was "nervous … anxious, timid" as he teed off alongside Dustin Johnson and Charl Schwartzel in one of the marquee afternoon groups.
It made a mockery of his pre-tournament rallying call on Wednesday, when he reacted to being told his odds for victory were 20-1 by saying: "It’s a good week to back me."
Even those odds — unusually long for McIlroy — looked way too short when the world No. 4 pulled his tee shot at the first, had a flier to the right of the green with his second shot, sent his chip shot through the green with his third, and two-putted for bogey.
He bogeyed Nos. 3-5 — his par putt at the fourth hole lipped out from four feet — and said he was thinking: "Geez, here we go again."
Fitzgerald’s words kept McIlroy positive and the Northern Irishman was happy that he stayed patient. Just last week at the Scottish Open, McIlroy said his attitude to golf and life in general had improved since getting married in April.
"I didn’t get angry out there at all," he said. "I didn’t let my head drop too much."
McIlroy hasn’t missed the cut at consecutive majors since 2010 (Masters, U.S. Open) and is taking confidence from winning the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston in September last year after being 4 over through three holes.
"I’m always more nervous playing in these four (major) tournaments than I am anything else," McIlroy said. "And I felt that out there today, just because of the lack of self-belief I had going out.
"But somehow I was able to find it halfway through the round and, again, that’s what I’m going to concentrate on going into tomorrow."