GULLANE, Scotland – Rory McIlroy walked through the entrance of the media center, climbed onto the dais, sank into a dark leather chair behind the podium and buried his head in his iPhone, tapping out a quick message before his therapy appointment … no, his interrogation ... OK, really, his scheduled interview session. The moderator, as if it to drive home the point, introduced McIlroy not as the current second-ranked player in the world but as the “former world No. 1.”
When you’re mired in an 0-for-13 slump, everything seems like a slight.
Over the past few weeks McIlroy has taken heat from all corners, as if he’s locked in a sauna. And these aren’t just sideswipes from anonymous Internet commenters. These are boldfaced names, legends of the game, presumably some of the most authoritative voices on the subject.
Jack Nicklaus has weighed in. He thinks McIlroy has become a bit too “leisurely,” that a little pressure to perform could propel him out of his yearlong slump.
Johnny Miller, as is his wont, offered his opinion. He thinks Rory is in love, and that such a dizzying feeling can be “distracting.” (For what it’s worth, he also doesn’t like McIlroy’s open shoulder position at address.)
And, most recently, Nick Faldo shared his thoughts.
The only person seemingly untroubled by the world No. 2’s current struggles? That would be McIlroy himself.
“I think, 'What’s the big deal?'” he said Wednesday at Muirfield. “I haven’t had the best six months, but it’s OK. I’m fine. I’ve got a good life. You know, it doesn’t bother me. I’m in a good place. I’m working hard. I feel like I’m working on the right things. And sooner or later, it will turn around and I’ll be back lifting trophies.”
Faldo’s criticism, in particular, dominated much of the headlines here earlier this week. “You have a window of opportunity,” the six-time major winner said. “You have, say, a 20-year window as an athlete. Concentrate on golf, nothing else.”
That’s precisely what Faldo did. He approached golf like he would a business. He arrived at the course at 9 a.m., hit balls all day, and left at 5 p.m. To him, that was a productive day. To him, the fun could (and should) wait. He sought, in order, greatness and then happiness.
McIlroy isn’t wired that way, and that’s OK, too. Sure, he puts in the time with his game – he has played 108 holes at Muirfield since last Monday – but he also enjoys his charmed life. He spends time with his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. He travels the globe. He acts 24 years old.
“Nick should know how hard this game is at times,” McIlroy said, “and he’s been in our position before. He should know how much work that we all put into it.”
When asked if he could ever foresee a day when he approached golf like Faldo, McIlroy didn’t hesitate: “No. I’m not like that.”
Certainly he isn’t naïve enough to think that any downturn in performance wouldn’t result into a full-blown crisis. He’s the 2012 Player of the Year, the phenom who won two majors by eight shots, the kid who was made fabulously wealthy by Nike. Now, and for the foreseeable future, whatever he does will draw attention.
The only other golfer who has experienced such ultrascrunity: Tiger Woods. He’s been microanalyzed ever since he greeted us with “Hello, world.” Maybe earlier.
This week, Woods recalled being criticized when he changed his swing after winning the Masters by 12 shots in 1997, and then again in 2002, after a stretch in which he won seven of 11 majors.
Only eight months of sharp criticism? In Woods’ world, that’s a reprieve.
“Only (McIlroy) knows it’s for the betterment of his game,” Woods said. “People obviously speculate and analyze and hypothesize about what he should or shouldn’t do, but deep down he knows what he’s doing.”
Perhaps no player in the past few years has given more thoughtful remarks about McIlroy than Graeme McDowell. Not surprisingly, he offered a word of caution before dismissing his friend and fellow countryman either this week or this season: “I want to say this time 12 months ago Rory McIlroy’s form wasn’t very good either, and he proceeded to have an incredible last six months of the season.”
But that’s only partly true. McIlroy’s “slump” last year lasted only eight events, or 3 1/2 months, and during that span he had only one more missed cut (four) than top 10 (three). In other words, he showed signs of busting out of his summer swoon.
That hasn’t been the case this year, not yet at least. His only legitimate chance to win came at the Valero Texas Open, the week before the Masters, where only 11 players in the OWGR top 50 were in the field. Since then, he has produced only two other top 10s, and he has played just 36 holes since the U.S. Open. Depending on the week, he’s either completely lost or tantalizingly close to a breakthrough, the margin of error seemingly as thin as a scorecard.
Which brings us to this week’s Open at Muirfield.
McIlroy described the current state of his game as “promising,” which sounds like neither a ringing endorsement nor a death sentence.
In truth, this week’s test of links golf may be what McIlroy needs to shake out of this malaise. Here, a player thinks not about positions or swing thoughts but about shot shape, ball flight and angles. His recent form has lowered expectations – currently a 25-1 favorite – and his Open record is poor, with just one top-20 finish (2010) in five career starts.
Rest assured, if McIlroy struggles at the year’s third major, the chorus of critics will grow louder still.
Another legend will step forward and explain, yet again, what is wrong with Rory McIlroy.
And how will he respond?
“I think the best thing is to try and stay oblivious about what people are saying about you, to try and wrap yourself in a little bubble,” he said. “It’s hard to avoid at times, but you just have to have the confidence and the self-belief that you’re doing the right things and know that what you’re doing is ultimately going to get you to the place that you want to be.”
Which is, of course, being a prolific major winner who can also enjoy the spoils of his success.