This is where it all started to go right for Rory McIlroy, the disappointments of spring and early summer morphed into the mother of all season finales. A top-five at the Bridgestone was followed a week later by victory at the USPGA to claim his second major. He could barely miss from there on in, winning twice in the FedEx play-offs and signing off the Race to Dubai in a blaze of birdies to top the money list on both sides of the Atlantic.
A year on McIlroy finds himself in the worst spot in sport, on the couch of scrutiny, where every aspect of his approach and character are dissected by the massed ranks of experts and commentators in order to come to a definitive truth about the crisis in his game. He will love the latest contribution from Gary Player, who counsels him to get a wife sharpish and stick with her all the way to the 19th hole, after all it never did him any harm.
At the Open recently Sir Nick Faldo advised him to concentrate on the golf, to cut out the “distractions”. For the uninitiated, distractions are the elements in his personal life that are dragged up to account for poor play. A popular target in McIlroy’s case is his relationship with tennis pro Caroline Wozniacki. Apparently the desire to spend time with the girl he loves is somehow counter-productive, it gets in the way of his golf.
Eh? Graeme McDowell attributed his best performance since his US Open triumph three years ago, victory at the Heritage in April, to the presence of family and friends. After missing the cut at the Masters, an event for which he said he was over-prepared, he journeyed to Hilton Head with his fiancée, members of her family, his parents, took two houses and barbecued his way to victory. There were no post-round sessions on the range beating balls that week. It was straight back to the shack to crack open the beers. He beat Webb Simpson in a play-off to claim his first title as a full member of the PGA Tour.
Similarly, after his victory at the US Open this year Justin Rose played one tournament then retreated to the bosom of his family for a fortnight before pitching up at Muirfield for the Open. No one gave him a shelling about family “distractions” when he missed the cut.
Another stick with which to beat McIlroy relates to his business affairs. Someone is certainly in a muddle here. McIlroy is presently engaged in separating from one management company in order to set up his own. Like many elite sportsmen the man has absurd wealth. This confers many an advantage, not least the capacity to delegate. Facing an eviction order for failing to pay the rent might impact negatively on the mood of a golfer on the first tee. I can see that. But paying one lawyer to negotiate with another to get him exactly what he wants seems to me to be a winning position in this thing called life.
And then there is the deal with Nike. This was the killer issue for Faldo. Why chuck away the magic of a winning relationship with one manufacturer for the uncertainty of another? This might have had a short-term consequence but nothing insurmountable. McIlroy could get his ball round with an old mashie. Besides if things were critical in this domain, he could follow the well-trodden path of badging the old driver with a new logo. Hey presto, no one would ever know.
McIlroy’s problem is every player’s problem. It’s called form. And no game demands more of body and mind than golf. The physics of the golf swing requires the kind of precision that no human being can hope to repeat ad infinitum. At some point rhythm breaks down and has to be rediscovered. This is the endless cycle that claims the best of them. Brandt Snedeker could not hit a barn door with beach ball a few months back and on Saturday he shot a 63 to lead in Canada by two strokes.
If stability is really the issue, consider this. McIlroy’s father and mother, the people who really matter, who nurtured him, who know him best, who keep him grounded, are at his side at most tournaments. McIlroy is 24 years old, and all that comes with it; impulsive, headstrong, excitable, hedonistic, indulgent. What crusty old has-been would not want that kind of distraction in their lives again?
All these inherent drivers were present when the putts were dropping. Only when they stop are they used in evidence against him. Let the lad be. He will work it out. And when he does it won’t be because he has life neatly parcelled up, it will be because the ball is finding the cup. That’s sport. The common experience in golf is failure. Three wins a year from 20-odd events is considered a hot streak. He should know. He has more than most. And guess what? It’s Bridgestone week again.