He’s the number one golfer in the world. He’s just signed a multi-million pound sponsorship deal with Nike. He’s stepping out with one of the most desirable tennis players on the planet. On the surface, life is pretty good for Rory McIlroy. But scratch a little deeper and all is not as it seems, culminating in his withdrawal from the Honda Classic halfway through his second round last week.
Now, withdrawing from an event may seem like a fairly trivial matter to some, but golf has a certain etiquette to uphold. I’ve seen a lot worse behaviour on a golf course: clubs thrown into trees, a plethora of swearing, buggies driven into hedges (guilty), but as the top professional in the sport, McIlroy has a sense of duty to at least complete his round, even if he’d rather be elsewhere. He may not like all the publicity that comes with being the most recognisable golfer on the planet, but it comes with the territory, so he’d better get used to it sooner rather than later. Sponsors, fans, TV companies all pay top dollar to see the best players, and if one player decides that he’s having a bad round and walks off after nine holes, it doesn’t send a great message – least of all to his fellow professionals.
To his credit, McIlroy has admitted this week he made a mistake quitting in Florida so that might spare him a suspension, but I think the PGA tour should at least fine him because he came up with the rather feeble excuse of ‘a toothache.’ In the annals of excuses, it’s right up there with ‘my dog ate my homework.’ Come one Rory, you can do better than that. He originally claimed he was ‘not in a good place mentally,’ and then later cited a troublesome wisdom tooth as the ‘real’ problem. Look, there are plenty of times on the golf course when I’ve ‘not been in a good place mentally,’ (usually after my 6th three putt of the round), but I move on to the next hole and start again (and then cry inside when my tee shot fails to reach the ladies tee). We all have bad rounds now and again but surely, to get to the pinnacle of your sport, you need a certain mental fortitude as well as an abundance of talent. This part of McIlroy’s game is currently eluding him and until he sorts it out, it will seriously minimise his chances of winning. Whatever the problem in Florida (toothache my arse), it was good to see him apologise for his conduct: “No matter how bad I was playing, I should have stayed out there. I should have tried to shoot the best score possible even though it probably wasn’t going to be good enough to make the cut.”
A lot has been written about McIlroy’s change of equipment to Nike. Now I have no doubt that changing manufacturer is a significant step and it takes time to get used to the feel, trajectory, distance and weight of the new clubs. He has been using these for at least three months, so he should have adapted by now (when cricketers change bat manufacturers, it is a similar process, but it rarely takes them so long to adjust). When I got my new Nike clubs last year, it improved my game no end within about 9 holes and I won my first competition three months later. So, am I better than McIlroy? Possibly, but the key to this story (apart from an opportunity for me to gloat) is that my new clubs gave me renewed confidence. Unlike Rory, I didn’t have the whole of the world’s media analysing my every shot (thank god) and I think this is where his problem lies. He has gone from being a very famous person within the sporting world, to a name that almost everyone all over the globe will recognise, regardless of whether they follow golf, just like Tiger Woods. This level of scrutiny is something you can’t prepare for, and therefore, when he has a couple of bad rounds, it is magnified and certain people are quick to jump on his back. This results in a loss of confidence which can translate to negativity towards his new clubs. It is not his actual clubs that are the problem, but what they represent and the expectation that they bring, and McIlroy is struggling with this; he himself has said that his new equipment is ‘fantastic’ and admitted “I know if I can get my swing back on track, the results will follow.” To his credit all the sounds emanating from the McIlroy camp in the past few days are positive so I’m hopeful that a change in fortune is just around the corner.
It is easy to criticise McIlroy for his poor start to the season, but something very similar happened in 2012 too. He had a serious lull after his victory in the Honda Classic and people were questioning him after his lowly performance at the Masters. Leading up to his US PGA triumph he had missed three consecutive cuts and lost his number one ranking. Since that US PGA win at Kiawah Island, he hardly looked back and finished the season at the top of the money list for both the PGA and European tours as well as retaining the Ryder Cup. Every golfer will go through peaks and troughs, and a few bad performances in a row do not mean a golfer in terminal decline. Remember McIlroy’s meltdown at the US Masters in 2011 and everyone wondered how he would recover from such a massive setback? Well he went on to win the next major (U.S Open) by a record margin. It seems that he thrives on adversity, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him up at the business end of this week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral in Florida.