ARDMORE, Pa. — From No. 1 to just one of many, Rory McIlroy's game has clearly hit a rocky patch.
No wonder he's considered making Philly's most famous run.
"I was half thinking of going to the steps in the city, the Rocky steps," he said. "Wherever they are, going to run up those. Just because we are where we are."
McIlroy has more in mind that landing triumphantly at the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's steps. He'd like to leave an imprint on Philadelphia as the U.S. Open champion.
First, he needs to find the eye of the tiger, even at the risk of catching Tiger's eye. McIlroy will be part of the feature group the opening two rounds, playing alongside Tiger Woods and Adam Scott — Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the world ranking.
Woods, Scott, Graeme McDowell have been rattled off at the top of the list of contenders who can win this week at Merion Golf Club. In just six months, McIlroy has gone from golf's next great player to a mere afterthought at Merion.
Most weeks, he hasn't come close to winning. The 24-year-old from Northern Ireland believes, though, his game is rounding into form, and it might help that conditions at Merion are soft because of days of rain, just as it was at Congressional for his record U.S. Open win.
"I much prefer this sort of golf," he said Tuesday. "I expect the scores to be a little lower than what they would be if the course was a little firmer and dryer."
McIlroy won the 2012 PGA championship on Kiawah Island to go along with his U.S. Open title in 2011. But he finished 25th at the Masters this year and is coming of a brutal 78 at the Memorial Tournament. He barely made the cut and finished 57th. He has a 33rd and a 45th on his resume and, most notably, quit in the middle of a round at the Honda Classic.
He played well to get in contention at the Texas Open in early April, finishing second with a final-round 66 for his best finish of the year.
"This year, I feel like my game's actually in good shape," he said, referring to his Open chances. "I feel coming in this year I've got a way better chance than I did last year."
McIlroy attributed the strain to wanting to improve on his breakthrough season, when he won the PGA, five tournaments around the world, money titles on the two biggest tours and established himself as the best player in golf.
McIlroy, who started the year in a slump and still hasn't won, struggled to balance his game with his business. He signed with Nike for what is said to be upward of $20 million a year and then left Dublin-based Horizon Sports Management to set up his own management group.
He said the toughest part of this season has been "managing the expectations, probably of myself and other people."
"You want to contend and win tournaments and I haven't done enough of that this year," he said.
Perhaps he could have continued to work on his game under the radar and without fanfare had it not been for that first-day grouping.
With just about every camera, reporter and fan at the course turned to the McIlroy-Woods-Scott grouping, the buzz from first hole of the tournament might well feel more like the first hole of a playoff. And maybe that can give McIlroy's game a jolt.
"It gets you focused from the first shot," he said. "There's going to be a lot of attention on that group and it's just nice to be a part of it."
Starting May 6, 2012, McIlroy spent 32 straight weeks at No. 1 before relinquishing the top spot to Woods after his win at Bay Hill.
Reaching No. 1 again is a worry for another day. Up first, conquering those Scottish-style bunkers known as the "white faces of Merion."
"As long as I just put it on the fairway, I feel like I can take advantage," he said.
McIlroy planned to unwind Tuesday night by watching the San Antonio Spurs play the Miami Heat in the NBA finals. The Heat Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh might be the only trio in sports this week that can top Woods-McIlroy-Scott in A-list star power.
"They can sort of help each other out, where we're trying to do our own thing," McIlroy said. "We're trying to beat one another. But it's nice again to pair the top-three ranked players in the world. It's a cool idea and I'm just happy to be a part of it."
He'll be happier to walk out of Merion a champion again.