Here we are, a couple of days past Rory McIlroy’s 33rd birthday (happy birthday, Rory), and no one in the United Kingdom barring Prime Minister Boris Johnson generates so much talk among golf lovers as the Northern Irishman. McIlroy causes as many discussions now when he has not won a major championship since 2014 as he did when he was dazzling us with victories in four of them before he was 25, only the third man to achieve this feat. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods were the other two.
McIlroy was then, and remains, a charismatic figure with an exceptional ability to play good golf. He has a thoughtful charm that is admirable for being quietly expressed, particularly to those on the east of the Atlantic for whom understatement and calmness are preferable to their opposites.
Think of McIlroy and you might remember the sight and sound of a typical drive of his, one that almost burned the air through which it flew with its velocity and height and distance.
Think of him and reassure yourself he wouldn’t have gambled and lost $40m dollars in four years as Phil Mickelson is alleged to have done in a new book by Alan Shipnuck the American golf journalist. McIlroy is an admirable man and golfer, one to look up to, like Davis Love III or Luke Donald, a good role model for any aspiring young professional.
Think of McIlroy and you might remember the sight and sound of a typical drive of his, one that almost burned the air through which it flew with its velocity and height and distance. How can someone of 5 feet 9 inches and comparable lightness of weight hit the ball so far and so well?
Think of McIlroy and you remember the sight of his slightly side-to-side walk, a jaunty one if ever there was one, when he is at full bore. You remember him as a bushy-haired teenager rushing his putts in the 2007 Walker Cup and playing a supercharged singles match against Patrick Reed in the 2016 Ryder Cup, one that went this way and that before the American triumphed on the last hole.
Think of McIlroy and you think you can read him like a book. At his best he is perhaps the most enthralling golfer in the world, though Mickelson with his derring-do would have run him close in years past. Woods had an excitement generated solely by his ability to hit one good shot after another. His body action rarely generated excitement in the way McIlroy’s does. “There is simply no question in my mind that Rory is one of the most talented athletes ever to play the game,” Denis Pugh, the well-known British instructor, said. “His swing is a thing of beauty.”
Think of McIlroy when he signed his lucrative deal with Nike in January 2013 and Tiger Woods sent him a message: welcome to the family. Various reports suggested the deal was for $200 million over 10 years, others that it was worth $10 million annually for a multi-year contract, still others said $150 million and yet others said €150 million. The point is it was a lot of money, making McIlroy, then 23, one of the richest athletes, not just golfers, in the world.
He was asked whether there were any downsides to receiving such a large sum of money at so young an age. Looking perplexed and slightly ill at ease McIlroy replied: “I’m just trying to concentrate on playing golf. All the financial side and everything like that will take care of itself. I’m in it to try and win trophies, and they are worth more to me than any contract is.” The question was put to him another way. “You knew approximately or exactly how much the sum is, but my point is what downsides are there? What could possibly go wrong with such a huge amount of money?” Slightly uneasily McIlroy replied: “I don’t know. Bad investments or (cue laughter) I really can’t answer that one.”
Think of McIlroy in the first two days of the 2021 Ryder Cup, looking lost, unable to win a point from his three matches, disappointing many, and how Padraig Harrington, Europe’s captain, challenged him by naming him to play top in his singles and lead a recovery by the Europeans. Think of how he defeated Xander Schauffele in a triumph that owed as much to his character as well as his skill, and how he cried with emotion in the aftermath.
Think of McIlroy on a golf course. He is not stony-faced and gimlet-eyed like Woods nor wearing a lopsided smile like Mickelson that sometimes looks genuine and sometimes does not. McIlroy’s is a little golly-gosh, aw-shucks sort of look, confident but not cocky, approachable not aloof, and that is part of what makes him so attractive.
Think of McIlroy winning the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional by eight strokes and the 2012 PGA at Kiawah Island also by eight shots. These are victories that evoke memories of the runaway triumphs of Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters, by 12 strokes, and the 2000 U.S. Open, by 15 strokes.
Think of McIlroy and the damning words he used when he heard of Phil Mickelson’s disparaging comments about the PGA Tour and the Saudis. “… but I thought [his comments] were naïve, selfish, egotistical, ignorant. [They] were just … very surprising and disappointing. Sad.”
Think of McIlroy last month, bringing the 86th Masters to life with a resounding final-round 64. Think of his spontaneous and uncontrolled reaction to holing his bunker shot on the 72nd. Think of the Masters as one of golf’s four most important tournaments, the four major championships, and the one that McIlroy has not yet won, and think of the pressure on McIlroy before, during, and after each Masters as siren voices whisper: Can he win a green jacket this year, this week, ever?
Think of all these and you will soon arrive at one important question concerning McIlroy, one that is always asked: Why hasn’t he won more major championships? What has happened to him?
Let’s move now to the terrace of a golf club in England in the early evening of last Tuesday. With pots of tea and a couple of slab-like slices of cake in front of them, some golfers were enjoying the late-afternoon sunshine while expressing their opinions about McIlroy, a welcome change from political arguments about Boris Johnson and the war in Ukraine.
The first man – we shall call him Alan because that is his name – said he thought it was a shame that McIlroy seemed not to have fulfilled his potential. He acknowledged that McIlroy had matured and there was an attractive solidity about him and his character now, but Alan had a clear feeling that McIlroy’s career seemed to have stalled.
“Because of his incredible talent, the public expectation is that he should have won more major championships. That’s not fair. He is a well-brought-up guy who does the game a lot of good. He is a credit to his parents. And a credit to the game.” – Roddy Carr
Marcus, the second man, worried that McIlroy, by having a friend on the bag, not a dyed-in-the-wool professional caddie, might just be missing something in those really important moments when the player and the caddie have to come to an agreement and the player has to perform. Might there be a moment in the dying minutes of a major championship when a professional caddie’s advice would be better?
Malcolm, a business and life coach and a former member of the R&A, began by reminding us of what Lee Trevino had said: “No one is born with a full set of golf clubs,” (whether in golf or in life). He then segued into his area of expertise, giving an analytical assessment of McIlroy’s character. “One way of looking at people from a psychological perspective is using what is known as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a method based around the work of the famous psychologist and psychiatrist Dr Carl Jung,” Malcolm said. “Keeping it simple, our left brain is masculine and is based on sensing reality while our right brain is feminine and uses intuition to source possibility.
“Rory is, I suspect, a very right-brained intuitive who sees everything in terms of possibilities. He is so intuitive with such a finely tuned engine that life and reality can knock him off balance very quickly. When operating in the moment, these people are truly amazing. The vicissitudes of life and rounds of golf mean that reality and the risk of starting to think about things means that Rory risks being knocked out of gear. Managing information by staying in the moment and observing reality will allow him to move forward faster in the future. When reality is not happening, the mind can get disappointed and down on itself. This means he needs to be able to learn to graft things out at times. For a type like Rory, the unimaginable is always a possibility. Steady as she goes does not float Rory’s boat.”
And so, we come to the views of the last member of the group. He, John, said he felt that the public’s expectations were an unfair burden to be placed on McIlroy. What right had we, the public, to suggest that McIlroy had not fulfilled his potential. The only person to know whether McIlroy was feeling that he was in a slight slump, at least in terms of major-championship victories, was McIlroy himself.
John argued that McIlroy’s career was entirely satisfying. McIlroy had settled in Florida, he and wife, Erica, had an entrancing little girl, he had the respect of his peers by being elected chairman of the Player Advisory Council, and he spoke his views quietly, thoughtfully. He was, so John said, an exemplar of how to conduct himself, and the years since his last victory in a major championship should be seen in that light, not as some kind of personal failure.
Roddy Carr is one of Ireland’s finest-ever amateurs. The son of the legendary Joe, who was known to his family as J.B., Roddy played in the 1971 GB&I Walker Cup team captained by Michael Bonallack that won at St Andrews. He had heard with patriotic pride of the prowess of his young countryman, though it was not until McIlroy won the 2012 PGA at Kiawah Island, manhandling the rest of the field out of the way as he sped for the finishing line, that Carr really and truly sat up and paid attention.
“After I had seen that I phoned John Jacobs, who used to coach me, and said: ‘Jake, the way Rory is swinging the club now, is that the way you have been trying to get me to swing the club?’” Carr said. “All that stuff you have been teaching me. Is that what Rory is doing now?”
“I suppose as you get older you realise that your shelf life is not going to go on forever, and maybe you put pressure on yourself and want to win more times before you finish your career. And you see the next generation coming up and snapping at your heels, and perhaps that can put pressure on you, too.” – Judy Murray
And Jake replied: “It’s the most perfect swing I have ever seen. It is the epitome of everything I teach.”
No sensible observer would say or wish for anything other than that McIlroy, though in his fourth decade, could have majestic years still to come. Nicklaus won the Masters at 46 and Mickelson the PGA Championship at 50. Forty is the new 30 and 50 the new 40, all that.
“I am far from being someone able to tell Rory what to do, but I am a great observer of the game,” Carr said. “Because of his incredible talent, the public expectation is that he should have won more major championships. That’s not fair. He is a well-brought-up guy who does the game a lot of good. He is a credit to his parents. And a credit to the game.”
Judy Murray is the mother of Andy, the greatest tennis player produced by the U.K., and she is well positioned to know what it is like for her son to have the expectations of an excited nation placed on his shoulders. At Wimbledon, the pressure on Andy was enormous, just as it had been on Tim Henman before him.
“If I look at tennis and I look at the Grand Slams, the biggest pressure on a tennis player is playing in your home country,” Murray said. “Why do the French always struggle at the French Open? It’s the pressure of the crowd, the pressure of the media and all the buildup to it and these endless questions, ‘Are you going to win it this year?’
“The biggest expectation with most sportsmen is the expectation they put on themselves. I suppose as you get older you realise that your shelf life is not going to go on forever, and maybe you put pressure on yourself and want to win more times before you finish your career. And you see the next generation coming up and snapping at your heels, and perhaps that can put pressure on you, too.
“You need people to help you to deal with all of these questions, and you can see that some of the top players are very good at removing the pressure on themselves and almost writing off their chances. ‘I have had a bit of an injury, so I am not expecting too much’ or saying, ‘so and so is the world number one, so he’s going to be the favourite.’
“Some players are very good at deflecting the pressure, so whether they have been coached to do that or whether it is something that they do themselves to keep themselves strong. You can’t generalise with these things. Everybody is an individual, and everybody deals with these things differently.
“As you get older you have the advantage of experience and of having done it all before, which should stand you in good stead, but then perhaps you have the pressure of, ‘Well I’m getting older; I don’t know how many more opportunities I might have to do this.’
“Maybe it’s the same thing for Rory. Other people want it for you or expect it for you, but actually you are happy with what you’ve got.
“Billie Jean King always said pressure is a privilege, and I think … it’s perfectly normal to get to a stage in your life when you don’t want the pressure anymore. You want to enjoy what you do. That is more important to you than putting yourself under the pressure to try and become the world number one. Maybe you have done that, and maybe you think you don’t want that anymore.
“Look at what Johanna Konta (the former Wimbledon semifinalist who was once world number four before retiring at age 30) said: ‘I want a normal life.’ You have to 100 percent respect that, and you have to admire players for all the years they put in to get themselves to the top and actually you don’t want them to fall out of love with their sport.
“You want them to keep playing, and you’re only going to do that if you’re enjoying it and if you’re happy in your life around the sport.
“That’s where I would see that Rory is. He is still giving back to the sport. He is still competing at the top level. He is very charismatic and hugely popular. Yeah, leave him alone.”
Top: McIlroy’s spontaneous display of joy after chipping in for birdie on the 72nd hole was one of the highlights of this year’s Masters. Photo: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images
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