Rory McIlroy starting to feel the heat

DORAL, Fla. -- The scrutiny for Rory McIlroy has not yet evolved to the stage of a certain high-profile golfer who is not eligible here at Doral this week. But it is trending in that direction.

Every tournament, every round -- heck every swing -- is typically the level of introspection when it comes to Tiger Woods and his game, in good times and bad.

It has been far more of the latter of late, hence his time away from the game and failing to even qualify for this week's WGC-Cadillac Championship.

At age 25, McIlroy has yet to experience anything close to what Woods has endured over the years, but he's getting a taste of it. And when he started the tournament Thursday with 40 over his first nine holes, you could sense the inevitable doom and gloom.

McIlroy rallied over his closing nine holes -- the front side at Trump National Doral's Blue course -- to get in with a respectable score of 1-over-par 73, although that put him 11 strokes back of tournament leader J.B. Holmes.

But McIlroy already had those so inclined scurrying to the scorecards to note that McIlroy had started 2015 on the PGA Tour by shooting nine-hole scores of 38-35-37-37-40. The 33 he came in with in the afternoon helped.

"I guess I realize what's expected of me," said McIlroy, the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world. "I expect a lot from myself, but you know, shooting 1-over-par out there today isn't too bad. It's obviously not what I wanted. But no reason to panic and no reason to be alarmed. Just go out tomorrow and put some red numbers on the board and try and get myself back in it."

And as McIlroy also noted: "Four rounds ago I was winning a tournament."

That would be on Feb. 1, when he captured the Dubai Desert Classic, his fourth victory in his past 12 starts (not to mention four runner-up finishes), the one that had many ready to hand him the green jacket.

Of course it's not that simple, given the nature of the game. McIlroy was never going to just cruise into the Masters and win his third straight major and complete the career Grand Slam.

He could win his two starts between now and then and miss the cut at Augusta National. He could go in with the worst form and still emerge with the year's first major.

But along the way, McIlroy will be poked and prodded, perhaps to frustrating levels. It comes with his stature in the game.

And all he has to do is ask his South Florida neighbor Woods.

Imagine what would be happening if this were Tiger? His game is in disarray at the moment, and yet more attention is paid to it than any other. Think back to better times, such as 2001 when Woods had come off winning three straight majors the year prior.

Woods went the first five tournaments without a victory, and despite three top-10s and no finish worse than a tie for 13th, he found himself being asked why he had not won.

Among the questions going into the Arnold Palmer Invitational that year:

"No one really believes that you are any less of a golfer than you were last year. Things just haven't gone the same, the results are not the same. Is it important to you how you handle this stretch as much as it is on golf?

"Can you talk about the frustrations; you have to be pretty accustomed to having things go your way?"

Woods' basic response was that six tournaments wasn't really that many. Sure enough, he won that week, won the following week at the Players Championship and then captured the Masters for his fourth straight major title.

So yeah, the expectations can get a bit out of whack, and McIlroy is getting a taste of that now.

The Northern Irishman missed his first cut of the PGA Tour season last week, and now finds himself in 27th place, 11 shots behind the leader.

"He wasn't playing bad, but wasn't playing as well as he can be," said Henrik Stenson, who was paired with McIlroy and shot 69 himself. "This is the kind of golf course where the scoring might go away from you if you hit a couple of loose ones. He seems to be playing OK."

McIlroy was more annoyed than he was upset, understanding of the ups and downs in golf.

"It is very good on the range and it is very good in normal play when I'm not playing in a tournament," he said. "Then I've got a card in my hand the last couple weeks and it just hasn't quiet been there. I don't feel like it's far away. That's the frustrating thing.

"It obviously is still very early days in the season. I feel pretty comfortable with my game. It's just a matter of going out there and being able to show it rather than just on the range and at home."

McIlroy is only a few weeks removed from that victory in Dubai. He shot 63 on Monday -- hitting all 18 greens in regulation -- at Seminole Golf Club's pro-member tournament. There was an impressive eagle at the 8th hole on Thursday.

But he was over par for the third straight round, perhaps not a big deal. And yet with McIlroy, everything is a big deal.