Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Legends Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo tell Rory McIlroy told to focus on job

GULLANE, SCOTLAND - JULY 16:  Rory McIlroy tees off on the 10th ahead of the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield on July 16, 2013 in Gullane, Scotland.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
GULLANE, SCOTLAND - JULY 16: Rory McIlroy tees off on the 10th ahead of the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield on July 16, 2013 in Gullane, Scotland. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

The frisson of excitement that coursed around Muirfield as the draw was unveiled for the first two rounds of the British Open was felt most keenly by the Irish, especially with G-Mac and Rory featuring with Tiger and Phil respectively in the two marquee groups.

It's a measure of the Major profile enjoyed by the two Ulstermen, that surnames no longer are necessary to identify them to the global sports audience, though in the case of world No 2 McIlroy, the word 'endured' seems more appropriate right now.

Having closely observed McIlroy's thrilling march to two Major titles and the pinnacle of world golf, it's disquieting to see this exceptional sportsman shorn of confidence on the course and beset by controversy off it.

The latest but by no means last straw came in the shape of a lengthy feature in the 'New York Times' last weekend in which Karen Crouse described her visit to Carton House to observe McIlroy playing in his 'home' Open.

Under the heading "McIlroy, a native son, divides Ireland", the piece offered a warts-and-all account of how the 24-year-old interacted with the public and the "tremors" he'd caused "along the political fault lines throughNorthern Ireland and the Republic by saying (last year) he'd always felt more British than Irish".

It was extensively researched, with the writer even asking an Irish customs officer if he had anything to declare about McIlroy, publishing his caustic, ill-informed reply: "We're a small country, nobody likes a snob". McIlroy most definitely is not a snob!

Okay, he's not the life and soul of the party when his golf game falls far below his own sky-high expectations.

Instead, he retreats like a hermit crab into a sullen shell, frustration even leading to the occasional explosion, like walking off the course after eight holes of the Honda Classic or throwing and bending clubs in the final round at last month's US Open.

Neither is he driven by any political agendas. It was typically honest but perhaps naive of McIlroy last October to express to an English golf writer feelings of his own national identity, feelings inevitably nurtured during an upbringing in the leafy Belfast suburb of Holywood and its cosy golf club.

If the declaration by the customs officer grated, so too did the obvious paucity of people Crouse found standing by the fairway ropes at Carton willing to speak up strongly on McIlroy's behalf.

"The public opinion of Rory is not necessarily the way it once was," a leading Golfing Union of Ireland official accurately observed in the piece. "The public view of him in Ireland definitely has waned given the Olympic conversation."

As a nation, do we require gifted sportsmen to conform to our own way of thinking to offer them support?

No question, McIlroy has put himself in a difficult corner. His decision to change all 14 clubs in his bag from Titleist to Nike last winter on foot of a $20m per annum deal was exactly how Nick Faldo described it: "dangerous".

His tournament schedule this year has made it infinitely more difficult for the Ulsterman to recover his game and his confidence. For example, playing just 36 holes of competitive golf in four weeks between the US and British Opens is likely to leave him too ring rusty and short of momentum to make an impact this week at Muirfield.

Faldo certainly is not the only former champion to offer his verdict. JackNicklaus suggests that the problems this year have been more mental than technical, saying McIlroy took a step back after reaching the top of the world last autumn.

"Rory has won two Majors and the demands on his time have become very high," Nicklaus explains. "Nike has given him a huge contract. Financially he is set for life, he has a Major championship for life, but I don't think that's what satisfies Rory McIlroy.

"He's been sort of doing 'other things' and now he is back to wanting to play golf again and he's struggling. I think he's struggling because I think it's in his head.

"Before he was grinding, grinding, grinding to get where he wanted, all of a sudden he has got a little bit more leisurely and has got less pressure ... you need the pressure."

Nicklaus insists: "Rory will get it back. He's just going through a period ... he's too talented, he's too hard-working and too good a kid not to."

Outspoken US TV pundit Johnny Miller cited McIlroy's clubs change, plus his flourishing relationship with Caroline Wozniacki, saying: "I think he's in love for the first time. It's a wonderful feeling, and it's distracting."

Everyone has an opinion but while McIlroy's decision to quit management firm Horizon in mid-term still perplexes observers, it's clear he's in need of guidance on several fronts, from his tournament schedule to handling the media.

One suspects that a mixture of the self-belief, which helped drive McIlroy to the top of the golfing world, and inexperience lie behind impetuous recent decisions, not least his equipment change.

Yet beneath his recent sombre facade, an indication perhaps of the real McIlroy is his commitment to the 'Rory Foundation' he set up earlier this year.

In May, McIlroy asked Belfast businessman Barry Funston, formerly an oil industry executive who first befriended the youngster at Holywood Golf Club, to head this venture, which already is doing sterling work for children's charities.

For example, McIlroy's foundation has developed firm links with the Northern Ireland Cancer Fund for Children and has initiated the building of a respite centre in Newcastle, Co Down.

Meanwhile, just last Saturday at the Archerfield Links, near Muirfield, McIlroy invited a Spanish teenager suffering from cancer to a Nike clinic he hosted with coach Michael Bannon after hearing recently from the Golf Federation d'Espana that the boy would like to meet him.

"Rory gets a lot out of these days and it's a side to him that people don't see. He doesn't do it to court publicity," said Funston. He believes McIlroy does not get the credit he deserves ... "but I guess that is the nature of the world in which we live. We don't seem to rejoice and celebrate success. We seem to always want to knock people when things are not going they way they should for them. So I think he's treated quite harshly."

However, amid the criticism lies sound advice, like that from Faldo at Muirfield yesterday as he insisted McIlroy must set aside all outside issues and focus entirely on the core business, golf. "I actually think he's a lot going on in his mind," said Faldo, adding: "My only words of wisdom to Rory are 'you have a 20-year window as an athlete, so concentrate on golf'.

"You need 100pc concentration on practice as well. The most ideal thing I could do was go to the club at 9.0 in the morning, hit balls all day long and leave at 5.0 thinking what a lovely day I'd had. You have to do that."

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