Behind the scripted outfits, the flashy news conferences, the ubiquitous sound bites about a game that is “close” and a swing that is perfectly honed for golf’s grandest stages there is a person.
In every sport you are what your record says you are. But in life you are the sum of your experiences be they pleasant or painful. Where fans and the media see the stoic reality of a scorecard, the truth is often measured in more subtle ways.
A bad day on the course is always more than simply a collection of missed putts and poor swings. On Wednesday in England, Rory McIlroy had a bad day.
Just days after sending out wedding invitations for his marriage to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, the Ulsterman announced the two had agreed to end their relationship after more than two years.
“There is no right way to end a relationship that has been so important to two people,” McIlroy said in a statement. “The problem is mine. The wedding invitations issued at the weekend made me realize that I wasn't ready for all that marriage entails.”
Three days earlier, McIlroy tweeted a picture of the two at dinner in Monte Carlo, writing: “Nice view for dinner with @CaroWozniacki at Nobu Monte Carlo.”
Wozniacki, a former world No. 1, caddied for him in April in the Par 3 Contest at Augusta National and the power couple had been dubbed “Wozzilroy.”
On Wednesday at Wentworth, site of this week’s BMW PGA Championship, McIlroy was visibly emotional during his news conference, but left no ambiguity as to why he decided to play the European Tour’s flagship event, “I felt it was my duty.”
No player in golf has embraced his plight in the media fishbowl as thoroughly as McIlroy. From his struggles last year following his high-profile jump to Nike Golf to his meltdown at the 2011 Masters, he lives his life as if attached to a Sodium Pentothal drip. No subterfuge, no evasiveness - just honesty, be it playful or painful.
It was the latter at Wentworth.
“It was mutual and we both thought it was for the best for both of us and it’s time to move on,” he said. “It’s going to be very difficult. At least when I get inside the ropes I can try to concentrate on the shot at hand.”
We all have bad days – the car won’t start, the kids are late for school, the boss is a bucket head. Very few of us have to endure the trials of life staring down the barrel of a camera and microphone.
With a poise that goes well beyond his 25 years, McIlroy endured a 10-minute Q&A with his signature aplomb. He didn’t like it – we can’t imagine anyone who would – but then he’s been trudging down a path of unfiltered honesty since he arrived on the world stage.
And since delusional behavior doesn’t seem to be in his DNA, it seems likely he knows what comes next. Although he said golf would provide a refuge, it seems more likely it will be only a temporary distraction.
We’ve seen this before.
Although he wasn’t nearly as open about it, in 2009 when Sergio Garcia split with his girlfriend, Greg Norman’s daughter Morgan-Leigh, the impact on his performance was obvious.
El Nino was second in the Official World Golf Ranking when he and Norman split in March ’09. Within 18 months he’d plummeted to 75th in the world.
“Myself, when I am not feeling happy on a golf course and not up for it, that is the way it is,” Garcia said in July ’09. “You can’t do anything about it. I can’t do well. Obviously the break-up with Morgan didn’t help. You get over some things. Others take a little longer.”
Garcia has since played his way back to seventh in the world, and given McIlroy’s play in 2014 – he hasn’t finished outside the top 25 anywhere in the world this season – perhaps he will cling to the onward-and-upward philosophy.
But know this, it will be a tough day at the office when he sets out Thursday at Wentworth. The scorecard will be the objective measurement, but the real test of his ability to move on will come from within.
“I’m no different than anyone else. Everybody has been through breakups and it’s difficult,” McIlroy allowed as he fidgeted uncomfortably Wednesday. “I just want to get my head into golf this week and concentrate on the tournament.”
No, it’s not any different than anyone else who has found themselves on the wrong side of an emotional roller coaster. But in McIlroy’s case he must shoulder through in the public eye.
We often forget star athletes are human and we expect top performances regardless of relationship status or the occasional cosmic curveball. Luckily, McIlroy has never shied away from his humanity.