ORLANDO, Fla. — Rory McIlroy is living proof that even the world’s best players search like the rest of us struggling amateurs.
McIlroy has won 13 times on the PGA Tour in his career, including four major championships, and has been the No. 1 ranked player in the world. And yet, of late, he’s looked like just another player grinding it out on the PGA Tour, having tied for 59th at the Honda Classic two weeks ago and missing the cut at the Valspar Championship last week.
McIlroy, whose world ranking has slipped to 13th, enters Thursday’s opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill searching for a spark to propel him — particularly with the Masters (the only one of the four major championships at which he’s yet to hoist the chalice) just three weeks away.
“It doesn’t feel very far away,’’ McIlroy told The Post in between shots while playing his pro-am round Wednesday. “Sometimes I’ve been the most surprised of anyone when I get out here and is just isn’t quite there, because in practice it’s really good.’’
McIlroy’s lament sounds familiar to those of us who look like driving-range heroes while practicing and then can’t hit the broad side of MetLife Stadium once we try to take it to the first tee.
“It’s hard, because when I play in my weeks off or in practice it feels pretty good, but when I get out onto the course it isn’t quite the same,’’ he said. “I just need a couple of good scores, and I think that’ll maybe give me a little boost going forward.’’
That’s the thing about McIlroy. When he gets hot, the rest of the field might consider running for cover, because he can look like an unstoppable locomotive when he’s feeling confident and has that bounce in his step.
“When I go back over my career, I’ve always had that sort of spark where it’s been, ‘OK, I’ve got it,’ and I go with it for quite awhile,’’ he said. “It seems like once I get going I can keep it going. I obviously haven’t gotten that this year.’’
It’s early, though. There’s plenty left to the season for McIlroy to find that spark and go off like the No. 1 player in the world he used to be. And there’s no place he’d rather find it than at the Masters, which is the only major championship he needs to win to complete the rare career Grand Slam.
Phil Mickelson said last month he felt it was important for him to win before the Masters. McIlroy’s view is different.
“For me, I think playing good golf and seeing yourself hit good shots is most important,’’ he said. “You can play great for a week and not win and still come away feeling good about yourself. A win is an accumulation of good play over time. Phil was trending in the right direction and his win in Mexico [two weeks ago] was just like a byproduct of the body of work he had put in before.’’
The root of McIlroy’s struggles has been his putting. He’s ranked 160th on the PGA Tour this season in putting, taking 1.807 strokes per green. He’s ranked 124th in strokes gained putting, usually an accurate statistical barometer of a player’s success. He’s ranked 122nd in three-putt avoidance.
On no fewer than eight greens during Wednesday’s pro-am, McIlroy would miss his original birdie putt, rake the ball back for a practice redo and make it.
He looked like the rest of us amateurs whose second shot after a poor first always seems better and that “Player Two is a lower handicap than Player One.’’
“Yeah,’’ McIlroy said. “The second guy is better.’’
He’s looking for the second guy to be the first this week on the Bay Hill greens.
McIlroy, whose strength always has been how freely he plays the game, said he’s trying to be less technical with his putting and more about feel.
“I’m just going back to a couple feels that I’ve had before, a little bit more freedom, a little more instinctive, reacting to the target … stuff that I’ve done before but stuff I’ve gotten away from while working on technique,’’ he said.
Make no mistake: It’s not like McIlroy, who hasn’t won a PGA Tour event since the 2016 season, has been an abject failure. He finished runner-up in Dubai in January and in a tie for third at Abu Dhabi.
“Since I’ve been over on this side of the pond I haven’t had that week,’’ he said. “But I’ve got two more opportunities before we go to Augusta.’’
The first of those comes at Bay Hill, where McIlroy finished tied for fourth last year.
So count him out at your own risk. Watch for the spark.