The attraction is obvious. McIlroy is a force of nature, a star with his own gravitational pull. Extraordinary events have constantly unfolded around him, ever since he creamed a 40-yard drive at the age of two, then turned up on Ulster Television 10 years later showcasing his party trick of chipping balls into the drum of his mum's washing machine: a serious tilt at the 2010 US PGA; that capitulation at the 2011 Masters; bouncing back to win the US Open with the lowest score in the tournament's 115-year history. Making it to the top of the world rankings at 22 seemed almost mundane by comparison.
A full career's worth for most players, but oddly little of McIlroy's unfolding story has occurred at the Open. Which may seem a strange thing to say seeing he shot an opening-day 68 as an amateur at Carnoustie in 2007, and a record-equalling 63 on his way to a tie for third place at St Andrews in 2010, but at neither tournament did he contribute to the business end of proceedings.
As the sun finally threatened to stream across the Royal Lytham early on Friday, hopes were high that this could be the year McIlroy takes a serious shine to the Open. He was set up perfectly after yet another headline-grabbing day's work. His opening 67 was not so much a rollercoaster journey, given the course's sodden conditions, than a ride on the log flume: six birdies, a bogey, a double, and one ball sent skittering out of bounds off a hapless spectator's noggin.
McIlroy took some good karma out with him onto the course, having searched out the 16-year-old punter he had clocked, found he had been camping in a field, and put him up in a nearby hotel with a few quid to spend by way of apology. And initially it seemed the gods were happy to offer McIlroy some payback, his scorecard not suffering too much despite a few drives that, this being Lytham, could most generously be described as Ballesterosesque.
On the 2nd, McIlroy took out the big bat and pushed his drive close to a tree down the right. There followed an object lesson in taking one's medicine: he punched the ball back onto the fairway, clipped a pin-high approach to 12 feet, and rattled the par saver into the centre of the cup. But that was the only lesson learned. Out came the driver again on the tight 3rd. Again the tee shot was sent down the right, this time seriously flirting with the out-of-bounds parallel to the railway line. His second shot was yanked towards the thick rough down the other side of the fairway, and really should have found tangled trouble. But the ball squeaked onto the bare turf of the 4th teebox, avoiding a clump of impossible grass and nearly clattering into the caddie of a highly amused Toshinori Muto.
McIlroy escaped with only a slapstick bogey, and reclaimed the shot on the following hole: a sensible iron from the tee, followed by a crisp wedge and putt. But on 6, big Bertha was unsheathed again with predictably dire consequences. The drive was hoicked into deep rough down the left, and his second shot was dumped into a greenside pot bunker from which an up and down is always a pipe dream.
Again McIlroy responded with an immediate birdie, but he was battling against the tide, and his karma was running low on petrol. On the par-three 9th, he over-ambitiously attacked a pin stuck in the front-left corner of the green, and found a treacherous sand trap, taking two to get out, a double bogey the result. On BBC Television, Tony Jacklin – winner here in 1969 thanks in no small part to some expert bunker saves – suggested McIlroy had been "too cute" in both going for the flag and attempting to softly splash out of the pothole in order to hold for the pin. It was an analysis McIlroy agreed with after his round. "It's just tough when you're really trying to get something going and it's just not quite happening," he admitted. "You're sort of just trying to force it a little bit. And that's what I did today."
The heaving gallery stuck with their young hero, but to little reward: having gone out in 36 strokes, two over par, McIlroy came home in 39, dropping three more shots over the back nine. Sand would once again be his nemesis on 17, the ball nestling in a pool of standing water, his free drop plugging in wet sand, forcing him to play out sideways. It had been Hobson's Choice – earlier in the round his playing partner Keegan Bradley had opted to literally splash out of a bunker rather than risk a plugged ball from a drop – but to McIlroy's great credit, he refused to bemoan his luck.
Having dropped dramatically down the leaderboard, McIlroy was one more carved drive away from missing the cut, but after parring 18 to a warm blast of sympathetic applause from an ever-adoring public, he retains hopes for the weekend.
"Obviously Brandt 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 the day today, going into Sunday I'd still have a chance."
The admirable never-say-die determination of a great champion, but while this 75 was not quite as disastrous a second round as his infamous 80 in 2010, chances are that, 12 shots behind Snedeker, he'll have to wait yet another year to play a serious role at the greatest championship.
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image: © Ed McDonald