LYTHAM ST. ANNES, ENGLAND - In the eyes of arguably the most amiable young superstar in all of sport there is a flash of anger when it is suggested that his inspired and instinctive drive to conquer the world is roughly several sets and love-40 down.
Rory McIlroy, who slightly more than a year ago appeared to have inherited the world of golf, snapped that "there is no distraction" when it was implied earlier this week at the British Open that there was a link between a crash in his form and his romantic entanglement with Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki.
Yet the circumstantial evidence is mounting. With four missed cuts in six outings -- including the U.S. Open, which he not so much won as engulfed 13 months ago -- something has taken McIlroy away from the glowing edge of his most beautiful game.
Friday there was another dip in the McIlroy stock value when he kept his place in the tournament by the barest margin, shooting a five-over 75. The biggest blow was landing in a water-logged bunker beside the ninth hole and suffering a double bogey.
At three-under on the first tee, McIlory was perfectly placed to make a challenge for the lead that was so spectacularly usurped by the obscure but extremely agreeable 31-year-old from Nashville, Brandt Snedeker.
Yet McIlroy never began to come terms with the wet course -- and pin settings which reflected official fretting over some of the low scoring of the first round.
Set against his second consecutive failure to make a significant impact on the British Open after his superb first-round 63 and tie for third place at St. Andrews two years ago, there was a certain irony Friday as Tiger Woods -- who might be described as the game's ultimate victim of distractions beyond the fairway -- produced more evidence that, at age 36, his attempt to remake his game might just be nearing some striking success.
While Woods prowled again with considerable intensity, McIlroy, 13 years his junior, had rarely looked so detached from the image of the young master -- one who in the few months between the 2011 Masters and U.S. Open completed one of the most astonishing resurrections in any branch of major sport.
McIlroy emerged from his Augusta ordeal, when he crumbled so disastrously on the back nine when the Green Jacket was his for the collecting, playing golf of breath-taking creative brilliance.
It came in a flood of spontaneity. It persuaded golf that it was experiencing a phenomenon to rank with the young Woods who dismantled the field at Augusta as a 21-year-old in 1997 before marching to 13 more major tournament victories.
Friday there were times when the glory McIlroy achieved at the Congressional Club in Washington seemed almost like a freak of memory -- and not least when he fashioned the chance of a birdie on the 18th green, then misdirected his putt so badly it brought another expression of anguish.
Earlier he had looked down at his shoes and murmured "No." It was not hard to understand his disbelief.
Afterward he put on an impressively brave face -- not least when meeting again 16-year-old Jason Blue, who was hit by a McIlroy ball during the first round.
McIlroy paid for a hotel room for the boy who was preparing to spend the night in a tent, saying, "I thought it was the least I could do. I didn't want him sleeping the night in a tent when he has a massive gash in the side of his head. Yeah, I put him and his mate up for the night and gave them a bit of cash to go for some food.
"If someone gave me a big hole in my head I wouldn't be too happy."
McIlroy managed to conceal some of the worst of his own despair at this latest collapse of his game -- and he even held out the possibility that somehow he might find a way back into a meaningful corner of the tournament.
That seemed an even more remote possibility than No. 1-ranked Luke Donald's chances of translating an impressively fashioned 68 into authentic evidence that he might be on the point of making his first weighty challenge for a major tournament.
"Obviously, Snedeker is a little bit ahead at the minute but I feel like if I can maybe get it back to where I was at the start of (Friday), somewhere around there, three or four under going into Sunday, I think I'd still have a great chance," McIlroy said.
Certainly there seemed to be no inclination to seek excuses. He was asked if he had ever before played with water in the bunkers, and when he said no, it led to the question of whether the course was unplayable.
"Not, not all," he said. "The course is very playable. You just need to keep out of the bunkers, which is the whole idea anyway. So no, the course is totally fine. I don't see any problem with water in the bunkers.
"What is tough is when you're really trying to get something going and it's not really happening. You're sort of just trying to force it a little bit -- and that's what I did."
After the second round, McIlroy worked on the driving range with coach Michael Bannon. He was doing something which last year might have been deemed almost superfluous. He was going back to the mechanics of a game he had mastered so beautifully when he won his first major and gave an overwhelming indication that it was, surely, the first of many.
But you never truly master golf. You can push back its boundaries, you can convince some hard critics that you may well have redefined it, but always there is a time when it gets the better of you.