James Lawton at The Open 2013: Rory McIlroy tells Sir Nick Faldo - there’s more to life than chasing the majors
Faldo, winner of three Open and three US Masters titles, was an obsessive overachiever
You can almost touch the band of anger around the young golfer who so recently captivated the world. In the politest way Rory McIlroy makes his point as precisely as he might drill, on one of the better days he is so desperate to rekindle here at the 142nd Open, a perfect drive into the heart of the fairway.
It is a jab of a statement, aimed at the head of his arch critic. It is an announcement that when he comes back as the game's most uncharted talent, it will be entirely on his own terms.
Most emphatically, he says that if he does conjure again the most brilliant career momentum since the days of the young Tiger Woods it will have nothing do with the torrent of advice he has been receiving from Britain's most successful golfer, Sir Nick Faldo.
Faldo, winner of three Open and three US Masters titles, was an obsessive overachiever and McIlroy says, “It's a way I could never be. No, I could never be like him. I'm not like that.”
The huge difference which the 24-year-old Ulsterman is not shy to emphasise is that he will never mistake golf for the beginning and the end of the meaning of his life. “I will work as hard as I can,” he promises, “but there are other things which are important too.”
Faldo, who according to his former wife Jill, arranged for the inducing of the births of their three children so as to cause least disruption to his tournament schedule, is arguing that McIlroy needs to work a nine-to-five shift on the course and the practice range - and that for a few pivotal years he should shut out all those distractions which tend to come to a young man with a fortune of £68m accumulated in a few years. These, presumably, also include McIlroy's Danish girlfriend and tennis star, Caroline Wozniacki.
McIlroy was distinctly underwhelmed when Faldo and double major winner and former Ryder Cup captain Tony Jacklin issued their work plans. It was Faldo, though, who went most deeply under McIlroy's skin.
The winner of the US Open and PGA titles in a style which provoked talk of the new Tiger, and led his Ryder Cup team-mate Padraig Harrington to suggest he might match the American's total of 14 majors, said: “I saw that he [Faldo] said I should be at the course nine to five. I was actually on the range at 6:15am and got out of the gym at 6:15pm, actually a 12-hour day compared to his eight-hour day. Nick should know how hard this game is at times. And he's been in our position before. He should know how much work that we all do put into it.”
McIlroy has these last few days at least been vindicated by a tough work schedule on the flint-hard fairways, which are being watered overnight in an attempt to prevent them turning into a series of dustbowls. Certainly, he has put in the hours to promise a sharp improvement on the disconsolate figure he presented at the US Open, when his last round dissolved into a nightmare of doubt and club molestation.
“I played 18 holes on the first Monday I came here, I played 27 on the Tuesday - and then I played 18 Sunday, 18 Monday, 18 yesterday and I'll play nine today. So that's a lot of holes and I have played in two different winds. I've played in the west wind over the last few days and the east wind last week. This should prove quite beneficial. I also have a new driver in the bag, which is slightly different to the one I've been using.
“It's a different head shape, more of a pear shape, but it encourages the club face to close over a little bit more. My bad drive this year has been losing it to the right, so this is encouraging the club face to square up on impact and, obviously, I'm not getting that right shot any more, which is a huge plus. I'll hit anywhere between five and seven drivers this week, depending on the wind.”
It was a brisk but engaging performance by a young man plainly feeling more pressure than at any time since he burst forth as potentially the game's most compelling talent. He recovered brilliantly from a bad lie on the issue of sexism at this club which sits on the East Lothian coastline as a classic example of linksland golf and male obduracy, adding to a most evasive answer with a few graceful throw-away lines.
He said: “This is an issue in some golf clubs but in terms of life in general, I think men and women are treated equally for the most part these days. And I think this is how it should be.”
His most anxious admirers will hope for such adroitness this morning when he tees off in the company of Phil Mickelson and Japan's recently impressive Hideki Matsuyama. McIlroy accepts the level of the challenge he faces now but also insists that if the last year has been tough the bleakness of it has maybe been overstated - and certainly brought excessive reactions from Faldo and Jacklin.
“You know, there have been times when it hasn't felt so hard and I went on a great run from this point last year and until the end of the season. What I'm dealing with is life. When I hear the criticism from Nick, I think, ‘What's the big deal?' It's a good life. You are always going to go through highs and lows. It's just about trying to work your way through the lows.
“Yeah, it's true I haven't played my best golf this year, but I have shown there are signs that it is there and it's just a matter of doing that more often. At times it is quite difficult explaining why I'm not playing so well or why I haven't had the results that I have wanted over the last six months. But I know I'm working on the right things and I'm staying patient.
“I know that sooner or later it will turn around and I'll play the golf that everyone knows I'm capable of and it will be golf that I know is capable of winning major championships.”
What he has in mind on this scorched Scottish earth is the virtuosity of the performances that brought him those major titles which have been so quickly isolated in a gilded past. They were not so much victories as evidence of a game that could rise as quickly as the wind and yesterday the anger was at most distance when he talked of the challenge facing him here. It is one, he says, which will demand more of his imagination than his technique with the pear-shaped driver.
“It is thrilling when you have to think your way through and shape a shot, when your ability to visualise and imagine possibilities is the best attribute you have.”
The key to everything, he concludes, is your belief that you are doing the right things and that in the end they will get you to the place you want to be.” For Nick Faldo that has always been a high-efficiency workplace. For McIlroy it is somewhere quite different. It is where you ride the wind and dream the greatest shots.
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