PONTE VEDRA BEACH, FLORIDA | There wasn’t room for them in the same management stable last year and there wasn’t room for them in the last two rounds of The Players last week. Mind you, it was a bonus that Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood were competing at Ponte Vedra. Last year, they decided to give the tournament a miss.
McIlroy, having got back to being world No. 1 a few days earlier, missed the cut at The Players as he has done on both previous occasions. He came off the Stadium course last Friday, smiled that slow smile that makes him so easy to warm to, and admitted: “Last week I shoot 14 under and I feel I hit it just the same this week and I’m going home.” If he had shrugged, he couldn’t have demonstrated his bemusement more clearly.
At times, McIlroy surprises us by his maturity and composure. The way he dealt with his last round collapse in the 2011 Masters was one of the most assured and remarkable performances ever seen in golf. Few if any of his rivals would have shown such grace under pressure. Shortly after, Chubby Chandler, then his manager, flew to meet McIlroy, expecting to have to administer tender loving care to his client. Within seconds, Chandler realised he had nothing to do. “I don’t know what all the fuss is about, Chubby,” McIlroy said. “I’m fine. I’m over it.”
At other times, however, McIlroy’s words and deeds remind us that he was seven when Tiger Woods turned professional. Even now, even when holding up the handsome U.S. Open trophy, he looks as though he needs to shave only every other day. McIlroy, who has just celebrated his 23rd birthday, looks of tender years. Increasingly, he sounds of tender years, too.
Last week he talked about missing the cut again, saying, “Off the tee I find it pretty difficult around here,” and admitting there were things he didn’t like about the golf course, explaining how he found the angles from the tees did not make him feel comfortable. He also admitted, publicly, that not winning many events early in his career had affected him, using startlingly frank language to do so. “I should have won in Switzerland. Lost in a playoff in Hong Kong. And I think I was six ahead with six to play coming down the stretch in Dubai and only won by one, so it was a relief to get over the line there.”
As he said all this, the thought occurred to this listener: why are you saying this, Rory? Why are you talking publicly about weaknesses? Don’t admit them – at least not in public – if you can avoid it. Would Nicklaus have talked like that? No. Would Tiger Woods? No. Would Phil Mickelson? No.
McIlroy and Westwood were both managed by Chandler until last year when McIlroy suddenly announced he was leaving. It is thought that he did not feel completely at ease at ISM where Westwood and Darren Clarke are so well embedded. There have been suggestions that McIlroy was not always comfortable with the advice he was being given, too, which might be a veiled reference to his and Westwood’s absence from The Players last year when McIlroy was No. 5 in the world and Westwood was No. 1.
This episode gave an insight into the characters of the young men once described accurately, but harshly, as a pudding-faced Northern Irishman and the straight-backed Englishman. They say that you can tell a Yale man but you can’t tell him much. You can tell McIlroy and Westwood from 500 yards, so distinctive are their walks and swings, but you can’t tell them much.
For years, Westwood ignored the trend among players to improved fitness. Westwood would turn his nose up at the idea that a more supple, stronger physique would help. “Every time I feel like going to the gym, I go and lie down,” he would joke. This was the time when he was overweight, uncomfortable in the heat and once at a tournament in the U.S. had to be put on a saline drip after he had finished his round.
Though 16 years younger than Westwood, McIlroy shares his iconoclastic streak. When Chandler said he could get a lot more money from a prospective sponsor for the words on McIlroy’s visor, McIlroy said no. Advised by Clarke, Westwood and Ernie Els, then a stablemate in Chandler’s ISM, not to go to the U.S. but to continue to ply his trade in Europe, McIlroy went west.
Even so, McIlroy’s and Westwood’s absence from the 2011 Players Championship raised a few eyebrows.
“I was a bit surprised because most of the time everyone does play,” Luke Donald said last week. “The top 50 do play. That’s the way it has been. That’s the history of this event.” It was, it now seems, an aberration. Both returned for this year’s event, McIlroy admitting that not playing last year” wasn’t one of my brightest moments. I’m glad to be back.”
On Friday, while Westwood was cruising through to the last two days after rounds of 71 and 70, McIlroy, whose rounds were 72 and 76, was asked whether he would come back. “I promise I will,” McIlroy said, laughing. “I hope I am coming back here for another 20 years, and if I don’t figure it out on my 20th go, there’s something wrong.”
There is something wrong now, Rory, a wonderfully gifted golfer, an adornment to the game. On occasions, you talk yourself down too often.