Hawk's Nest: Rough times for Rory McIlroy


A lot of serious golf fans don’t like a weepy champion, so when Bill Haas came down with a case of the man sobs after winning the AT&T National, the anti-criers had yet another reason to go kick the dog. This wasn’t a full-blown, Steve Strickeresque breakdown, mind you, but Haas, who recently became a father for the first time, was draped in emotion within 30 seconds after holing out on the 18th green.

Perhaps David Feherty should bring a box of Kleenex to the post-round interviews. My guess is that most female viewers enjoy seeing tears in a guy’s eyes – and that most men consider it a misdemeanor punishable by fine or trophy confiscation. Worse than jaywalking, not quite as bad as selling military secrets to a foreign government.

I am not one of those insensitive males. In fact, I am a closet-case softie who can’t watch “Miracle” or “It’s a Wonderful Life” without bawling like an unfed infant. My boy Jeff Rude likes to say that Ben Crenshaw has been known to cry at supermarket openings, and indeed, Ben’s heart spent more time on his sleeve than in his chest.

Since I’m still searching for my first PGA Tour victory, I’m not sure how I’d react, but I doubt I’d start crying until Uncle Sam took his share of the winner’s check. Supermarkets don’t get me, but a video montage of American soldiers returning from Afghanistan to surprise their wives and kids? Gotta watch that by myself.

NOBODY ON MY side of town has been more forgiving of Rory McIlroy’s lousy play this season, but after a missed cut at The Irish Open, his admission of “feeling a bit lost” and lingering equipment issues with a company paying him a reported $250 million over the next 10 years, it’s time to dial 911 and have the ambulance take us directly to the office of Dr. Perspective.

First and foremost, McIlroy is 24 years old. Fame and fortune didn’t exactly blindside him, but the reverberations of success take a kid out of his routine, altering his schedule to the point where practice time is compromised, if not deprioritized. Add the globetrotting, tennis-playing girlfriend. The kid’s own trans-Atlantic work responsibilities. The Oregon-based clubmaker feeding him all that money.

Not all of this stuff happened at the same time, but fame and fortune have a way of magnifying change. The parameters that allowed you to become the world’s best golfer no longer exist. You hire someone to handle all the external factors, to mitigate the interference. In May, however, McIlroy parted ways with his management firm for the second time in 19 months.

Those duties have been assigned to friends and family members, turning the clearance back into interference. Just last week, McIlroy said he wasn’t comfortable with the specifications of his Nike driver, which is an odd thing to hear from a tour pro six months into a mega-money relationship. He added an event (Valero Texas Open) to his playing schedule right before the Masters, but that didn’t help. Now he’ll go almost three weeks without competing before teeing it up at the British Open.

My 10-year-old can go online and find a gaggle of stories applauding McIlroy’s strong work ethic, his mission to greatness, his enormous natural ability. Alas, nothing prepares you for life in the fishbowl. You can’t climb into a simulator and experience the minute-to-minute ramifications of being a superstar. You learn it all on the fly, usually on a private jet.

We’re talking about 1.4 strokes a day here – the difference in McIlroy’s stroke average from 2012 to 2013. One 8-footer that doesn’t go in plus one drive that bounces into the rough instead of stopping on the first cut. It’s not a lot, but at golf’s highest level, 1.4 is a gap of estimable proportions, leading to a tricky game of cause and effect that invariably prompts some to blame the new clubs.

Tiger Woods has won a ton of majors with Nike equipment. Lots of tour pros have played excellent golf while gripping products from the Swoosh Dynasty. Nobody makes bad stuff anymore, and besides, if McIlroy’s swing is so pure, shouldn’t he be able to shoot a 67 with a bag full of bunker rakes?

The kid ranked 156th on driving accuracy last year and won four times. He’s 89th this year and can’t get out of his own way. In the curious case of the Irish Lad Gone Bad, the only piece of malfunctioning equipment is the three-pound tangle between his ears. It’s hard enough to win golf tournaments when it’s your only focus. When life becomes one giant distraction, you start missing cuts on your native soil and using the word “suffocation” to describe the trip home.

He’ll be back, of course, but it may get worse before it gets better.

IT WAS LATE 1999, another mild afternoon at the season-ending Tour Championship in Houston, and Tiger Woods was putting. And putting. And putting. His girlfriend at the time, a young lady named Joanna Jagoda, was sitting on a brick partition adjacent to the practice green at Champions GC, reading a book while waiting for the dude to refine his stroke to the point where they could go have dinner.

I had a quick word with Tiger before heading to my car and finding a Radio Shack – laptop issues – and it took a while. Maybe 45 minutes on Route 1960 alone, another 15 minutes in the store, so I got back to Champions at least an hour later. Jagoda was still reading. Woods was still putting, and the seeds that would turn into the greatest season in golf history were being planted on a Saturday in October at a tournament Tiger would win the next day.

Payne Stewart’s death had cast a massive pall over the event; the field played 27 holes Thursday and Saturday so it could attend the funeral service in between. Tiger had to be tired, but he’d gone almost 2 ½ years before winning his second major title at the PGA Championship that August.

 Sergio Garcia was rocketing to stardom. David Duval had held the No. 1 spot in the world ranking before Woods reclaimed it at Medinah. After a lackluster 1998, Tiger was winning tournaments again – he came to Houston off back-to-back victories at Firestone and Disney and had won five times since early June. Still, his chief rivals were right there. He could rest later.

Before he became one of the world’s biggest rock stars, the Dude in the Red Shirt was a tireless worker, a really good golfer who never stopped trying to get better. Nothing got in the way. Nobody was going to stop him, not even a hungry girlfriend. To plant those seeds of greatness, you must follow Ben Hogan’s advice and dig it out of the dirt first.

Still listening, Rory?

AS HEARTILY AS I applaud the USGA’s plan to hold the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens on back-to-back weeks at Pinehurst next June, I wonder about the practicality of scaling back a golf course taken to such obvious extremes for the big boys a few days earlier. One of the biggest differences in the two levels of play is the ability to gauge proper speed on the greens.

The women leave far more putts 5 feet short or run them 6 feet past the hole than do the men. No venue will exacerbate this factor more than Pinehurst No. 2, home of the world’s most famous domed putting surfaces. I think back to 2005, when heat and stress left the greens close to unplayable seemingly overnight.

Ever wonder why Michael Campbell won? The golf course was utterly ridiculous on Sunday – neither guy in the final pairing (Olin Browne, Retief Goosen) broke 80. Every putt became an exercise in total precaution, and when you neutralize natural ability to that extent, something funky is bound to happen.

Here’s to hoping both gatherings turn into terrific tournaments, and that my friends in Far Hills overdose on common sense on all their preparatory trips to North Carolina.