(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.
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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