Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

Rory McIlroy has talent to turn disappointing year around

ARDMORE, PA - JUNE 16: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts to his putt for eagle on the second hole during the final round of the 113th U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club on June 16, 2013 in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)
ARDMORE, PA - JUNE 16: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland reacts to his putt for eagle on the second hole during the final round of the 113th U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club on June 16, 2013 in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images)

Rory McIlroy is the most naturally talented golfer on the planet. He also happens to be a decent enough young chap, witty, sharp, incredibly resilient and generally well clued-in.

By all appearances, he's blessed to have a steady loving relationship with Caroline Wozniacki, who, as a professional tennis star, fully understands the environment in which he works and lives.

Never in his life will McIlroy have to toss and turn at night worrying about his mortgage or how he's going to pay the electricity bill. So how on earth does one of the luckiest young men on this earth become so frustrated that he ends up throwing fits on soil made sacred by the feats of Bobby Jones, Ben Hoganand the dignity of Sunday's US Open winner Justin Rose.

For the record, the Holywood native threw one club after playing a poor shot on the fifth hole at Merion on Sunday and was in such a fury after hitting a second ball into the creek at 11, he destroyed his 9-iron.

What has caused a player who purred to the top of the world on the back of his second record-breaking Major championship victory in 14 months at the US PGA Championship last August to get so badly bent out of shape?

Make no mistake, McIlroy's gifted enough to get it all straightened out in 72 holes and next week's Irish Open on the Montgomerie Course at Carton House represents a splendid opportunity to do just that.

Still, the first six months of what should have been one of the biggest years of his life have been wasted.

A train of circumstances left McIlroy so ill-prepared for the two focal points of his season so far, the Masters (where he finished an anonymous 25th on two-over) and at Merion (where he was an angst-ridden 41st on 14-over), there is one inescapable conclusion.

McIlroy has not given himself the opportunity to make best use of his talents and, in that regard, his career has drifted out of control.

"I sound like a broken record," he said after a final-round 76 on Sunday that included an ugly eight at that 11th hole. "But I don't feel like my game is that far away. It's a matter of trying to let it click into place."

Yet McIlroy's admission that his adjustment to his new Nike equipment in 2013 was impaired by an inadequate playing schedule points to one of the great chinks in this 24-year-old's armour.

"It's definitely a different feeling," he said of his club change. "The thing about new equipment is you can stand on the range all you want and hit balls but you really need to test it on the course.

"The numbers could be great on the Trackman (computer) but you need to get out and test it in competitive play and that's something I didn't do at the start of the year. I only played twice by the end of February, so I sort of needed to play a little bit more."

For this, McIlroy is fully to blame. Among the qualities which make it possible for such a young player to stare down the Tigers of professional golf is his self-belief, which in turn fuels his unyielding desire to be final arbiter in ever facet of his career.

It was obvious in the early months of this year that he needed to play more tournaments but, instead of taking advice in this instance on his schedule or even the wisdom of changing all 14 clubs at once, McIlroy followed his own path.

Of course, a young player has to learn but this year, as in the first half of 2012, McIlroy effectively reinvented the wheel.

Unfortunately, at a time when he's most in need of stability, McIlroy has embroiled himself in a complicated situation with his management company Horizon, which is quite confusing to outside observers.

Put simply, the player wishes to establish his own back-room team, made up of family, friends and close confidants, which is a perfectly legitimate aspiration.

However, there are several years still to run on the contract he signed with Horizon just 18 months ago and the independent structures and advisers the Dublin company set up to manage his business and financial affairs are still in place.

Neither side can make any comment for obvious legal reasons. It was peculiar, for example, to see Horizon representatives fulfil their duty by turning up after each round in Merion but with no public or visible interaction between the two parties.

This confounding affair, one suspects, has no direct impact on McIlroy's performance on the golf course.

Impatience overwhelmed him at the weekend as he tried to square the circle and find form, consistency and confidence at the US Open, the most relentlessly difficult tournament in golf.

The East Course at Merion was set up brilliantly to expose any doubts or weaknesses. With very few exceptions, the most notable being Rose, every player in this championship at some stage had to deal with double or triple-bogeys or even worse.

McIlroy may feel his game is close but it plainly was not yet at a point where it could see him safely through the Merion minefield, never mind give him the opportunity to build momentum.

His inability to cope with imperfection makes McIlroy a perfect candidate for the sports psychologist's couch. He has chatted occasionally with Dr Bob Rotella, among others, during his career but so far has seen no need for consultation... perhaps now is the time to seek help.

The world of professional golf is populated by sycophants and back-slappers – those who tweeted their support for McIlroy's inexcusable behaviour on the golf course last Sunday actually do him a grave disservice.

The player's own comment on Twitter left a great deal to be desired. "A lot of comments about my bent 9-iron," he wrote. "Moment of frustration and silly things to do. That's what Merion can do to you!"

One fervently hopes that McIlroy listened to and, perhaps, learned from the words of Rose at the moment of victory, when the 32-year-old Englishman stressed the importance of maintaining the tradition, ethos and values of the legendary figures to walk Merion's famous fairways before him.

Most impressive of all was the solemn duty Rose felt to honour the memory of his late father, Ken, in the way he competed at the US Open.

"A lot of us come from great men and it was important for me to carry myself and do myself proud on this day,' he said.

"I got a beautiful text earlier today (from his coach Sean Foley) that read: 'Go out and be the man that your dad taught you to be and be the man that your kids can be proud and look up to'," Rose added.

McIlroy is still a young man making his way in the game. He has forged a close friendship with Tiger Woods and would hope to emulate in some ways arguably the greatest golfer of all time.

Yet McIlroy's extravagant talent is balanced by his healthy commitment to people and pursuits beyond the fairway ropes, which make him more like aPhil Mickelson than a Tiger.

In truly coming to terms with who he really is as a golfer and a man – that he's not and probably never wishes to be as obsessed or relentless as Woods – it will become easier for McIlroy to accept inevitable imperfections.

Mickelson's decision to put family first and make that trans-continental trip from Philadelphia to San Diego and back in US Open week to attend his daughter's junior school graduation indicated where his priorities lie.

Though "heartbroken" to have to endure his sixth runner-up finish on Sunday, Mickelson is considered a real winner by Rose and many others for his attitude and the sportsmanship he showed in defeat against the Englishman at the Ryder Cup.

McIlroy is a great golfer and a fine young man but, like many of his tender years, he's in need of guidance. No doubt he regards Woods as a good friend but, hopefully, he'll also find inspiration in the spirit, words and deeds of men like Mickelson and Rose.

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