McIlroy dealing with crippling pressure of being No. 1

By Joe PosnanskiMarch 4, 2013, 1:32 pm

(Editor's note: Joe Posnanski is a national columnist for NBCSports.com. When his topic is golf related, you can read him here on GolfChannel.com.)

Friday morning, Rory McIlroy hit into the water on his ninth hole of the day. He was already 7 over par, well on his way to shooting a round in the 80s, and he did what millions of golfers around the world have done at some point after hitting a golf ball into the water. He walked off the golf course. He went to his car. And he went home.

Later, McIlroy would explain that he withdrew because of an agonizing toothache – he’d been putting off having his wisdom teeth removed. Some people believe the toothache story. Some believe that he walked off because he’s playing terrible golf, because he’s frustrated with his game and his equipment, and, simply, because he is becoming overwhelmed by the intense pressure of being the No. 1 player in the world.

I don’t see why you have to choose just one of those options. I would guess it’s all a little bit true. His teeth probably are hurting him. And I would also guess that Rory McIlroy, for the moment anyway, is feeling kind of lost.


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It’s no easy trick being the No. 1 golfer in the world. That spot has eaten up some pretty good players through the years. Think about Nick Price for a moment. For a year or so span in the mid-1990s, Price was the No. 1 player in the world – he had won three majors in a little more than two years.

Nick Price is one of the nicest people on earth … and he’s a great player. But there was something a little bit different about him when he arrived at The Masters in 1995 having won the British Open and PGA Championship. You could sense that he wasn’t entirely there. You could tell he wasn’t entirely sure that he even wanted to win and deal with even more intense pressure. He shot 5 over par for two days and missed the cut. He did not win on the PGA Tour for two and a half years.

Think about David Duval for a moment. For 14 weeks in 1999, Duval was the No. 1 player – this just before Tiger Woods took over the world. Duval was known for his intense competitiveness and singular focus. When Tiger raised his game to previously unseen heights – winning four majors in a row in 2000-01 – Duval was one of only a handful of players to try and run with him.

But after Duval won the British Open in 2001, his game, rather quickly disintegrated. He finished in the top six at the Masters every year from 1998-2001; he has not since made a Masters cut. He has not finished in the top 20 at the British Open since winning it. His body broke down. He suffered from vertigo. Something changed mentally, too.

Think about Martin Kaymer for a moment. He won the PGA Championship in 2010 in a playoff against Bubba Watson. Early the next year, he became the No. 1-ranked player in the world. He would say it didn’t matter much, it was only a number, it did not mean he was actually the No. 1 player in the world. Nevertheless, he then completely rebuilt his swing so that he could hit a draw – a shot that gently moves from right to left and is particularly useful at the Masters – and he mostly stopped winning, stopped competing at the majors, and tumbled in the rankings. He’s now trying to work his way back up again.

Yes, the top spot in golf can be utterly crushing — all of this just makes you appreciate Woods’ period of dominance even more. He held the No. 1 spot six times before holding it for two extended periods (from Aug. '99 to Sept. 2004 and June 2005 to Oct. 2010). I think the pressure of that top spot in golf is more crippling than being No. 1 in any other sport … and I have a theory about the reason. Other sports are played in full motion. There isn’t much time to think before you hit a passing shot, or duck a left-hook, or catch a ball in traffic, or hit a fastball. So much of the game is reaction.

But in golf, there is nothing but time to think. You walk around a golf course for four-plus hours, surrounded by people, and it’s quiet, and it’s warm, and there’s pressure, and the mind can go anywhere. A 4-foot putt at the U.S. Open shouldn’t be any tougher than the same 4-foot putt for five bucks against your buddy. But, the mind wanders into places that aren’t helpful. The mind considers history. The mind recalls a similar putt you missed in a high school tournament. The mind ponders how much money is on the line or how many people are watching.

These guys are pros, of course, and they train themselves to not think about any of this, to keep their thoughts positive and their visualizations clear … but it isn’t easy. And then, suddenly, a player is No. 1. And it all explodes. Every putt is world news. Reporters are everywhere. Everything you say is a headline, every opinion you offer (about golf or not) is analyzed and scrutinized. Expectations are insane – a bad round leads newscasts around the world. Whispers surround you. People invest hopes in you. It’s a lot to deal with. It’s hard to keep your bearings.

McIlroy is a great kid, everybody says so, and he seems to have his head on straight. He exudes joy. He has this big smile on his face most of the time. He is self-effacing without humble-bragging. He is competitive without going over the top. When golfers talk about him, they go on and on about his maturity.

But here’s the thing: McIlroy is 23 years old, and though he’s been under the microscope for a long while, it has never been to this magnification level. He signed a massive contract with Nike Golf during the offseason. He missed the cut in his first start of the year at Abu Dhabi. He lost in the opening round of match play last week. And now this. He will make mistakes. He will wilt under some of the pressure at times. It’s natural. And it’s human.

Jack Nicklaus – who handled the No. 1 spot in the world better than anyone in golf history – said it best. He said that McIlroy should not have walked off the golf course. He also said that if McIlroy had slowed down and spent five minutes thinking about it, he would not have walked off. It was a young and headstrong man dealing with all the unnerving disappointment of a game falling apart and all the pressures of being No. 1 for the first time in his life. He’s also dealing with new equipment that doesn’t feel right and a game that has been moldy all season and probably some tooth pain.

If there’s one thing that McIlroy has already shown in his young career, though, it is a remarkable ability to bounce back. Remember the way he imploded at the 2011 Masters? He handled himself beautifully afterward, and a few weeks later ran away with the U.S. Open. He was having a dreadful 2012 major season – 40th at the Masters, missed cut in his U.S. Open defense, 60th at the British Open – and then he ran away with the PGA Championship and won back-to-back weeks in September.

Nicklaus predicts McIlroy will learn from this, get better from this, and that seems a pretty sound bet. But it’s also a sound bet that there will be other rough patches for McIlroy as he figures out how to be the No. 1 player in the world without letting it consume him or his game.

I once asked Tom Watson how much different it was trying to become the best player in the world and trying to remain the best player in the world? He said he never thought of it that way. Then he said something quirky. He said that to be the best, you have to believe you are the best. And at the same time, he said, you can never believe you are the best. I said that those two beliefs contradict each other. He smiled and nodded.


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Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told GolfChannel.com Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when GolfChannel.com sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.


Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery


A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.