I don’t know what’s wrong with Rory McIlroy but I do know that golf can be a cruel game when mental disintegration takes hold. As a two times former major winner there’s no hiding place from the legions of well-intentioned amateur psychologists who think they have all the answers. The Ulsterman cut a lonely and disconsolate figure, bungling his way from the rough to the sand during his truncated visit to Muirfield, a hellish passage which brought a twelve over par total for two rounds and a free weekend with his thoughts. I’d leave him alone. You can’t have your sports stars just how you want them to be, and in truth there’s not a lot wrong that won’t just slot back into place naturally.
The problem is that once you get a bit of success and fame, particularly if you have something more than an anodyne personality, a marketable hairstyle and a celebrity girlfriend, you pass out of your own realm and become some sort of public commodity, whose every decision and intention is scrutinised and held to account. This didn’t happen overnight, and you could argue he should be used to it by now, but the constant wearing down, like the slow erosion of a cliff face, is an insidious process where the effects are noticed only gradually. When the mechanics are smooth and the ball is dropping, unwanted attention can be shrugged off, a minor itch you just can’t quite get at. But the walls of the cocoon are notoriously thin; a hooked drive, a three putt and the irritation is transformed into a searing pain. Deprived of the insulation a special talent bestows, a million eyes can burn a deep chamber of doubt.
He’s going through a slump in form. The Open Championship turns the headlights full beam on a darkened country lane. He’s trying to adjust his vision and all of a sudden he’s blinded and it’s coming straight at him. Several missed cuts, including a sore one at the recent Irish event at Carton House, had left the confidence fragile. As the camera shutters clicked on the East Lothian links, he was only one poor shot away from an embarrassing collapse. With the lightning greens and challenging pins already proving a source of consternation for several of his rivals, the trigger was waiting to be pulled. On the back nine it went off, and it was not so much a pistol as a blunderbuss.
Now the explanations are flying like confetti in a hurricane. It must be Caroline Wozniacki, the Danish tennis luminary with whom he shares a relationship, proving a damaging distraction. This rather trite assertion is oblivious to her presence when he blitzed the field at last year’s PGA. In any case, having someone at his side who is all too familiar with the pressures of a top level individual sport is more likely to be a comfort than a hindrance. Then there is the equipment change, from his Titleist clubs which had accompanied him thus far, to his shiny new Nike companions, complete with multi-million dollar endorsement deal. He was a formidably wealthy young man before he signed that, so I dispute the idea he’s folded his arms now that he’s got it made. If there’s a few teething troubles and tweaks to be made with his supplier then maybe that’s to be expected. Sir Nick Faldo thinks he took a dangerous course of action, and that’s not all he’s said.
Faldo’s tactless, ham-fisted attempts at motivation were very much in evidence during his stint as Ryder Cup captain. He may be the finest golfer these isles have produced in the modern era, but the parallels between himself and McIlroy extend no further than their shared excellence. They are totally different characters, the former exhibiting an awkward kind of focus which rendered him a strangely distant hero. In short, it worked for him. Would you call this man especially empathetic? His advice may be protective and paternal but it’s not particularly revelatory and I’m not sure it’s helping. In any case, hadn’t he turned thirty by the time he raised aloft his first Claret Jug?
Unlike Faldo, and the even more cold and calculating Tiger Woods to whom he is so often carelessly compared, McIlroy is an instinctive touch player, governed by mood and the biorhythms of his mind. It is why he tends towards streaks rather than machine like consistency. And rather like Phil Mickelson, there is something more human and more appealing about that. His bout of introspection on a balmy coastal evening into which his hopes had recently dissipated, might have seemed tortured, but we overlook that so much has happened so quickly. He is still coming to terms with it all. Growing up while the world is watching cannot be easy. He has the raw materials that most professionals would kill for. We should get off his case and give him room to breathe. It’ll all work out. I’m quite sure of that.