PITTSFORD, N.Y. – “What's wrong with Rory McIlroy?”
One of golf’s burning questions has heated from tepid to sizzling. Since this time last year, he’s gone from the kid who wouldn’t lose to the kid who couldn’t win – and everyone who’s ever put an interlocking grip on a golf club is trying to figure out why.
From Jack Nicklaus (“He's just going through a period”) to Gary Player (“If he finds the right wife, if he practices and if he’s dedicated, he could be the man”) to Nick Faldo (“Just concentrate on golf”), analysis has turned into advice, advice has become criticism.
In golf terms, the 24-year-old is being treated with the scrutiny of Justin Bieber or Lindsay Lohan. The kid gloves are officially off and the big-boy spotlight is shining directly upon him. As his blunt Ryder Cup teammate Ian Poulter warns: “Give him a break.”
“Should you lay off me? That's not for me to decide,” McIlroy said during his Wednesday news conference. “I'm here and I'm answering your questions and that's all I can do. It would be nicer just to sit up here, talk about some more positive things, but the way this year's gone, it's understandable why I'm not.”
As he undoubtedly has come to understand, winning two majors – by eight strokes each, no less – may come with all the spoils, but such success can also spoil quickly if it’s not soon repeated. And it hasn’t been. McIlroy has gone 0-for-2013 so far, ridding himself of that pesky “extra” prefix from his extraordinary performances.
It has left the golf world asking one burning question, over and over until the burn starts leaving a mark.
“What's wrong with Rory McIlroy?”
Well, let’s start with the girlfriend. As in, he has one. And he really likes her. Some observers – Player and Faldo included – have declared that his relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki is adversely affecting his golf.
What is often failed to be mentioned is that the two were already dating when he won last year’s PGA Championship. And when he won three other tournaments later in the year. And when he won Player of the Year on both the PGA and European tours. Tough to blame his love life when that’s remained a constant through thick and thin.
Which leads to his equipment. McIlroy made a much ballyhooed switch from Titleist to Nike at the beginning of the season. The move has left some speculating that using new clubs and – more importantly – a new ball has derailed his game, even inferring that the equipment is inferior to his previous gear.
It should be noted that the guy atop the world ranking – you know, the one with five wins already this year – uses the same equipment as McIlroy. Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with his tools – and they’re the same ones.
So maybe it’s his management. For the second time in two years, McIlroy decided to split from his representation recently. He’s clearly searching for a comfortable arrangement that he hasn’t been able to find.
It may be an inconvenience, but no player has ever won or lost a golf tournament because of his agent.
Many, though – all of them, really – have won or lost because of their golf swings. And McIlroy has struggled to recreate the same maneuver through the ball that served him so well the last few years. He’s even started watching video of his victories in an attempt to regain that swing. “More free-flowing, more I guess swinging without care, in a way,” he explained of what he’s working on these days. “Swinging it like you're giving it your all and ripping through the ball.”
The numbers don’t suggest any struggles. He ranks 11th on the PGA Tour with a 301.4 driving distance average; he’s 59th with a 69.52 greens in regulation percentage; he’s 23rd with a birdie average of 3.77. If there’s one interesting note about his ball-striking, it’s this: He hits 56.25 percent of greens in regulation from 125-150 yards; 65.45 percent from 150-175 yards; and 68.35 percent from 175-200 yards. He’s the rare player who seemingly hits his mid-irons closer than his wedges.
Golf is, perhaps, even more mental than technical. Following an opening-round 79 at the Open Championship three weeks ago, McIlroy summarized his on-course performance as “thoughtless” and “brain dead,” alluding to a growing lack of confidence that has robbed him of better results. It is nearly impossible to grade a player’s mental state – there are no statistics on the PGA Tour to calculate toughness – so we’re left to take his word for it.
It’s something he’s working on. McIlroy has maintained that he plans to compete with “that little bounce in my step” to recreate a positive attitude. He acknowledges that it isn’t easy. “It's much easier to have that positive attitude and that bounce in your step when you're playing well and making birdies and the game comes a little easier to you. But whenever you're struggling, of course it's going to be more difficult. … You just need to keep those positive thoughts. You need to have that right attitude to get your way through it. There's no point in slumping your shoulders and getting down on yourself.”
All of which should leave us with a lingering question. If none of these issues – his love life, his equipment, his management, his swing, his confidence – are fully to blame for what’s been a disappointing season to date, it leaves us still searching for an answer to the following query.
“What’s wrong with Rory McIlroy?”
The simple answer is … there isn’t a simple answer.
Like the final answer on a multiple choice exam, the correct response is “all of the above.” It’s as if each little piece of his game and his life has conspired to throw his final numbers out of whack.
McIlroy is finding that living in golf’s meddling spotlight can be all fun and games when you’re winning, but cumbersome and intrusive when you’re not. He’s starting to understand this life, starting to understand how to deal with it.
And that may be the biggest key to answering, once and for all, one of the game’s burning questions.