For Rory McIlroy, some positive signs

DUBLIN, Ohio -- Rory McIlroy had a few moments Thursday morning to ponder life as one of golf's superstars. It was not a particularly joyous time, certainly not trekking back to a drop area after his ball found the water.

It was worse, considering that McIlroy's shot had traveled across the 12th green after he knocked it out of a bunker. It hit a downslope and was gone, wet. And there was McIlroy, about to be playing his fourth shot on a par-3 when most people had yet to wake up.

After hitting another shot into the bunker, blasting out and two-putting, he walked off his third hole of the day with a quadruple bogey and was 4 over par.

"I was just like, 'Here we go again,'" said McIlroy, 23, after the first round of the Memorial at Muirfield Village.

Give him credit for his honesty, which has been refreshingly apparent as his path to stardom suddenly became filled with potholes.

If he wasn't being questioned about time spent with tennis-star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, it was his schedule. If he didn't hear about a lack of competitive rounds, it was a club toss last week at the BMW PGA at Wentworth. If it wasn't the club going airborne ... well, that was plenty.

"I threw my 6-iron on the 12th hole, and I didn't think it was that big of a deal,'' McIlroy said. "And then I wake up the next morning and it's all over the papers in the U.K., and I'm just like, 'Oh my god.' It's just one of those things, and it's something I'm going to have to deal with and learn how to do.''

McIlroy became a bigger story at the halfway point of last week's BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour for missing the cut than 36-hole leader James Morrison. That is the life of the No. 1 -- now No. 2 -- golfer in the world who has already won a major championship, won millions of dollars, jets off to spend time with Wozniacki and is generally a likeable guy from a small town in Northern Ireland trying to deal with the downside of fame.

"Rory has obviously talked about it, that he maybe took his eye off the ball,'' said Luke Donald, who replaced McIlroy as No. 1 in the world this week. "I remember when I was 23 and had an attractive girlfriend. I would take my eye off the ball sometimes as well. You can't blame the kid.''

No, you can't. Golf is simply a game that perplexes and frustrates even the best. Remember, just a month ago, McIlroy was losing in a playoff at the Wells Fargo Championship. He missed the cut at a couple of tournaments where he admits the venues are not necessarily to his liking. It happens.

Tiger Woods spoiled us in this regard. He has had so many stretches of high-level play -- never having missed two consecutive cuts in his career, for instance -- that we tend to think that a bunker swallows him whole whenever there is a bad shot.

For McIlroy, who from last year's PGA Championship through March of this year seemed to make the game look effortless and easy, similar sentiments have been expressed.

"I think the reason he obviously got the criticism or scrutiny is because he's been so consistent over the last six, eight months,'' Woods said. "I know him and Luke probably go back and forth between 1 and 2, but Rory has had probably more top-five finishes over that stretch. He's not just playing in the States, not just playing in Europe. He's playing all over the world, and he's playing at a high level for a very long time. People's expectations obviously are increased.''

McIlroy has maintained a sense of humor -- "I feel like I need some rounds. These two-day weeks aren't really that good for me'' -- and recognized he needed to get back to work. He has also added next week's St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn.

There have been some issues with his golf swing, prompting him to get with his longtime swing coach, Michael Bannon, who made the journey to Ohio from Northern Ireland. It is rare for Bannon to be with McIlroy on the road, which suggests there is a sense of urgency with the U.S. Open defense looming in two weeks.

"I just feel like we haven't really had that much time to sit down,'' McIlroy said. "Whenever I worked with him back home, we'd work for three or four mornings a week for three or four hours. And that's something we really haven't had this year, to be honest.''

To his credit, McIlroy bounced back from disaster Thursday. He trails opening-round lead Scott Stallings by 5 shots and is tied for 20th. After McIlroy's quadruple bogey on the 12th, he knocked in a couple of birdies before hitting another ball in the water at the 17th hole and needing to make a 6-footer for bogey. He turned in 39.

But no more bogeys followed. McIlroy made an eagle and two birdies, including one at the final hole to finish under par. The 71 looks ordinary, yet it was anything but. When he finished, McIlroy was only two shots out of the lead and, with Muirfield Village playing tough, right in the tournament.

"I hung in there well, and proud of myself for the way I just fought back,'' he said. "To finish the round under par I thought was a really good effort.

"I just tried to stay patient and not even think about the score, just think about what I'm working on in my swing and try and make good swings. That's really all I could do out there. I saw enough good ones, there was a little encouragement, and to string a few good holes together on the back nine was nice.''

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.