Southport, England. When the 146th Open Championship commences this Thursday plenty of eyes and concerns will be on Rory McIlroy. The key question centering how whether the four-time major winner can return to form. In his last four starts the former world number-one-ranked player has missed the cut three times.

What seemed like a possible rebooting of his game when McIlroy scored a final round 64 and a tie for 17th at The Travelers following a missed cut at the US Open the week prior, has seen his momentum stopped cold over the last two weeks. Consecutive missed cuts at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and then this past week at The Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open have left serious doubts whether Rory will mount a strong effort at Royal Birkdale this week.

McIlroy’s play in Ireland was particularly disheartening. Coming into the event as the defending champion and having his Foundation serve as the charitable arm for the event it was thought McIlroy would finally raise his game with The Open Championship just around the corner.

A consistent balky putter has been the Ulsterman’s tale of woe. McIlroy has been practicing with a series of different putters and none has cemented itself as the club capable in dropping critical putts time after time.

McIlroy’s last major championship victory came in 2014 with the PGA Championship at Valhalla after winning The Open at Royal Liverpool one month earlier. Leaving Kentucky with the Wannamaker trophy in his possession Rory vaulted to a strong number one ranked position and the general feeling in the golf community was he was now the heir apparent to Tiger Woods.

How long ago that seems.

rory openSince that time McIlroy has not finished in the top three in any major and he’s also had no less than three missed cuts as well.

Amazingly, McIlroy finished the ’16 season in strong fashion — winning the Deutsche Bank and Tour Championship events to claim the Fed-Ex Cup Playoffs and going on to show fine form at The Ryder Cup Matches last year despite the fact Team Europe lost.

A persistent rib injury set him back in ’17 — and although he opted for a considerable amount of downtime prior to the US Open his play at Erin Hills was clearly out of sorts during a first round 78. McIlroy did play well during the weekend at The Travelers in Connecticut but the issues is now more acute and serious as the battle for The Claret Jug is set to start.

McIlroy, while admitting his putting has been inconsistent has focused the issue on not having played enough competitive rounds. With each passing event that rationale seems misplaced.

The 28-year-old has never been a putter of the quality of Jordan Spieth or others of that talent. It has been his superior long game — especially with the driver that has set him apart from his rivals. His smallish frame of 5’9″ and 160 pounds has caused many to wonder whether the constant desire to hit tee shots with unbridled effort for maximum yardage has caused him to be more injury prone. On the short game side McIlroy often looks bewildered and if any missed putt happens the impact can linger wreaking havoc on his already fragile psyche.

McIlroy’s victory at Royal Liverpool in ’14 was vintage stuff. He never wavered, never showed the least bit of shakiness. Now, like all golfers, the cycle has gone the other direction. The questions this week will be asked again and again. For McIlroy the only way to escape the gloom and doom is to be able to get off to a good start when The Open commences Thursday.

It is hard to conceive McIlroy will forever be stuck on four majors but in today’s hyper competitive golf landscape the separation between players is quite narrow. There are always those coming up the ranks that bear scrutiny such as Jon Rahm from Spain. The 22-year-old has marched aggressively up the world rankings with his recent win in the Irish Open and many are predicting a future as bright as other earlier Spanish stars such as Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia. Whether that pans out or not will be a major storyline.

McIlroy is not the first golf superstar going through a slump during his professional career. A golf talent of his type is fully capable in returning to form but putting woes have afflicted many top tier players in the past and not so easily left them. The ailment afflicting McIlroy points to a mental one — wondering if key putts will drop when needed. The funny thing about confidence in golf — it can just as easily go up or down even further.

McIlroy is firmly counting on the former happening at Royal Birkdale. The balance of his ’17 golf season could well rest with his performance this week.