Rory McIlroy suffers a Doral fade

DORAL, Fla. -- There's absolutely no reason why Rory McIlroy still can't win the WGC-Cadillac Championship. All he has to do is shoot back-to-back course records and hope the 27 players in front of him suffer food poisoning.

The new No. 1-ranked player in the world is struggling a bit. It's nothing fatal, but the chances of McIlroy recovering in time to pole vault up and over the leaders are about the same as Rors beating girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets.

McIlroy isn't going to mail it in during the final two rounds -- that's not his style -- but it's clear that he's dealing with post-No. 1-itis. A Sunday ago he won the Honda and became the world's top-ranked player. This week he's 10 strokes behind leader Bubba Watson and thinking about ... the Masters?

"If I was in contention it probably would not be on my mind as much," said McIlroy after shooting a 3-under-par 69. "But seeing where I am on the leaderboard, it's on my mind a little bit more."

He isn't completely out of the tournament, but he's not in it. Not yet.

On a day when the South Florida breezes were in a good mood, Watson shot a 10-under-par 62. Justin Rose, in second place, shot 64. So did Martin Kaymer. There was lots of red on the board.

McIlroy eagled his first hole of the day and birdied the next. Here we go, right?

Instead, he bogeyed two of the next four holes. Whatever mojo he had took the rest of the afternoon off.

"Well, there was a 62 out there, obviously," said McIlroy, referring to Bubba, who caused the TPC Blue Monster to whimper. "But yeah, especially after the start, I felt I could have -- something in the 60s definitely was out there."

It was and then it wasn't. McIlroy couldn't figure out the speed of the greens and it showed. His five birdies were mostly long gimmes, but he didn't hole much when it counted.

After Thursday's opening round, when he shot 73, McIlroy admitted that he was mentally flat. He sounded slightly surprised by it all.

"I don't know, I shouldn't [be that way]," he said. "It's a World Golf Championship, but just felt a little flat out there."

But the No. 1 ranking can have that effect.

"All of a sudden you're there and you're like, 'Well, what do you do,'" McIlroy said.

His buddy and fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell knows the feeling. McDowell won the 2010 U.S. Open and said he needed six months to cope with the sudden expectations that came with the major. Some of those expectations were self-imposed.

"I gave myself less slack," said McDowell. "In Rory's case, perhaps he thinks, 'I'm the world's No. 1, I'm supposed to do this, this and this.' That was the killer for me -- thinking I had to do more."

McIlroy won last year's U.S. Open and now owns the No. 1 ranking. Maybe he's dealing with some of the same golf demons that bothered McDowell.

"We chase our dreams and goals and when you achieve these things like winning a major or ascending to world's No. 1, you ask the question, 'What do you have in reserve?'" said McDowell. "In the next few years, we're going to find out what Rory McIlroy's going to have in reserve."

You could almost see this coming. McIlroy went straight from the highs of the Honda win and unseating Luke Donald as No. 1, to the WGC-Cadillac Championship, a no-cut event that some players use as a place to work on Augusta National-type shots. After all, the first major of the season begins in early April.

So McIlroy suffered a mini-letdown. Big whoop. He'll be fine, said McDowell.

"He's been groomed for success," said McDowell. "I'm sure he doesn't see himself as the world's No. 1 for just one week."

This has been a McIlroy mental hiccup. He'll recover. He's smart that way.

After this weekend, he won't play again until the Masters. You'll see a different McIlroy by then. He'll be pumped, not flat ... refreshed, not mentally fatigued.

He won't win this week, but he'll learn a valuable lesson. He'll learn about having something in reserve.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.