Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Burnout key to Rory McIlroy's problem

What's eating at him? Rory McIlroy may well have got too much, too soon

It's the new Nike equipment. He's got too much money to be hungry. Going steady with a professional tennis star was never going to work. She's too demanding anyway.

An astonishing variety of reasons have been offered for Rory McIlroy's form slump this season.

Yet as the Ulsterman threatens to emerge from a long, dark tunnel with Caroline Wozniacki still on his arm, just as much cash in the bank and sometimes even hitting those Nike clubs with aplomb, it's probably time to consider the most obvious reason – burnout.

In seven seasons since turning professional in a blaze of publicity at age 18, McIlroy has campaigned relentlessly on the world's tours. At an age when his two closest peers in the global game were playing for love rather than money at college, the Holywood star was learning his trade at golf's school of hard knocks.

Tiger Woods turned pro in 1996 when he was 20 and Phil Mickelson not long before his 22nd birthday in 1992. At age 24, Phil had played just 71 official tournaments as a professional and Tiger 95.

Yet Rory is already a veteran of 151 and should have another 20 under his belt by the time he turns 25 next May. That's a massive 100 more than Mickelson.

Throw in the fact that Europe's finest are under pressure to perform for 11 months of the year as they pursue FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai honours, while their US counterparts usually can lift the foot off the gas after the Tour Championship in September.

Is it coincidence that barely six weeks after emulating Luke Donald's historic feat of topping the official money list on both sides of the Atlantic last year, McIlroy was barely able to raise a lick with his new clubs in January?

Or that he clearly hadn't the inclination to throw in a much-needed extra tournament before February's Accenture Match Play?

Or that after losing in the first round there, McIlroy was so bereft of form and confidence, he fled the Honda after just 26 holes?

It was intriguing to hear Martin Kaymer, one of the most level-headed and pragmatic performers in world golf, recently explain how he'd been consumed by the pressure of being world No 1.

Explaining what McIlroy might have faced late last year after winning a second Major title and storming clear at the top of the world rankings, his bank balance swelled by that $20m-a-year contract with Nike, the German said: "Your life changes when you become that successful," he said.

"I think you get distracted a lot and lose the focus a little bit, not because of yourself but because of the media, the fans, Twitter, Facebook and all that sort of stuff.

"Everybody talks to you. Everybody gives you their opinion without being asked. It does make a difference because it makes you think.

"I don't think Rory plays that badly. I think everyone makes it worse. McIlroy is much more volatile than Kaymer, of course.

Like Mickelson, he is an artist. Unlike Woods, he's clearly not a machine. The young Ulsterman was to this manor born but he's sweated under the spotlight since age 18, so is it any wonder he appeared to have fallen out of love with the game of golf in the first six months of this year?

He needed a sabbatical and, despite his best intentions, ended up taking one. Let's just call it the seven-year hitch!

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