What to make of Rory McIlroy missing the cut at the Irish Open? Especially after doing the same at the BMW PGA the week before? And especially after sealing his fate with an opening 80 at Royal County Down?
As far as the short term? Not much. McIlroy got a little off, which turned into frustration that caused the bad to become worse. He's probably only a refresher session with Michael Bannon, a little cogitating and a couple of good nights of sleep from getting back to the player who won twice earlier this month. And who should go into the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay as the favorite.
But long term, we have seen some patterns from McIlroy that have been repeated enough to draw a reasonably filled-in portrait of the nature of his greatness and who he is as a golfer.
McIlroy's particular brand of genius-level ability comes with an artistic temperament that makes him stubborn about playing the kind of golf he knows he's capable of and deeply wants to play. Which starts with hitting his favorite club -- the driver -- aggressively and often. It's statistically established that when he's hitting the driver well, it provides his most distinct advantage over the competition. And McIlroy has hit it so well -- with a gorgeous ball flight that he can bend both ways -- often enough that at 26 he is already considered a historically great driver. Most importantly for McIlroy's competitive state of mind, playing his brand of majestic golf tee to green is what most satisfies the artist within.
But on the flip side, being slightly off at the very high swing speeds that McIlroy generates means misses that go farther into trouble than shorter hitters. Psychologically, for an artist with McIlroy's talent level, it's nearly unavoidable that the mistakes grate more than they would for a less talented player with a more pragmatic view. The mega-talented and artistically bent Tom Weiskopf ruefully mused that after a couple of shots that displeased him, he began to look at his round as a painting he wanted to tear up and start over.
Of course, golf is a game of misses even for Ben Hogan. But while he's gotten better at stemming the tide on those days when it's not going right, McIlroy is susceptible to seeing his indifferent rounds snowball into snowmen. At McIlroy's stratospheric level -- No. 1 in the world, four major championships by age 25, one of the powerfully efficient golf swings ever seen -- it's a weakness.
Compared to the two dozen or so players golf's pantheon, at this point its fair to say that McIlroy's exhibits a distaste for grinding. Whereas Tiger Woods seemed to get as much satisfaction from turning a 75 into a 70 as from posting a 65, and Jack Nicklaus was a disciplined master of not shooting himself out of tournaments with wasted strokes, McIlroy models those behaviors almost grudgingly.
Not that McIlroy is a quitter in any sense of the word. He has dug deep when his game has been off on plenty of occasions, most notably last year in the final round of the PGA Championship at Valhalla. But such is his emergency mode, not his habit.
Ergo, the occasional missed cut, and the odd 80. Especially at a non-major, McIlroy when struggling in the first or second round is akin to a tennis player giving away the first set after getting down 4-0. In moments of weakness he may be susceptible to the Weiskopf reaction. The other variable that could be playing a growing role are the demands of being No. 1. While it's clear McIlroy enjoys that station and will fight hard to keep it, the mental burdens can be draining, and conserving energy may be more on his mind than ever.
Even if he goes on to win double-digit majors, the bet here is that Rory's opposing poles of good and bad will be wider apart than almost any other great player. Criticizing him for that is almost as unreasonable as expecting a golfer to be perfect. Basically, McIlroy's "weakness" is the tradeoff for possessing a "good" that has the potential to be considered the highest ever.
WATCH: GOLF DIGEST VIDEOS