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Sunday, February 28, 2021

The McIlroy inquests are a mark of the man

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It’s a testament to Rory McIlroy’s talent that after a podium finish in his first event of the season, the golf world is in meltdown trying to figure out where it all went wrong. McIlroy came up five shots shy of a brilliant Tyrrell Hatton performance, out-thought and out-played by the Englishman who moved to fifth in the world off the back of his fourth Rolex Series success.

But for all the plaudits Hatton’s received, they’ve been matched, if not surpassed, by the inquests around McIlroy’s final round 72 – only Tommy Fleetwood (73) managed worse amongst those inside the top-24 on the final day in Abu Dhabi.

When the European Tour released that seven minutes of bliss prior to the tournament, McIlroy on an empty range firing balls into a sunset sky, it was hardly surprising that he went out the next day to shoot 64 and lead. Swinging within himself, he had the ball on a string, a picture of relaxation as he spoke about how neutral everything felt, no fear of a ball going left, no problem hitting every shot in the book.

He said all the right things as he signed off on a moving day 67 to take a one-shot lead into the final round:

“I can’t go into tomorrow thinking it’s my turn. I want to make it my turn. I have to go out there and continue to hit the ball like I hit it on the back nine tonight. If I can do that and give myself plenty of chances, I’ll have a real chance.”

And for all the world it seemed like the McIlroy of Thursday morning and Saturday’s back nine was about to take the tournament by its scruff on Sunday. Two birdies in three holes, his lead extended to two over Hatton. Then McIlroy three-putted the fourth and failed to land another blow.

McIlroy said the wind had affected the putt more than it had previous days but call it a mis-read, a push or a touch of misfortune, whatever the cause, that miss seemed to suck the life from McIlroy. Up against Europe’s in-form player made the task no easier – Hatton doesn’t give an inch when he gets himself in contention these days and as it played out, McIlroy needed a mile. He finished third, banked €407,158 in his first event of the season and could see the many positives post-round:

“I don’t feel as though I played great this week, as I was sort of managing my game but it was nice to get a competitive week under my belt and know where my game is and what I have to do to keep on improving.”

But what else can he say? McIlroy won’t admit it but when Hatton poured the pressure on, he had no answer. Taken in isolation, that’s no problem but it’s become a pattern with McIlroy. He began the final round of last year’s Genesis Invitational tied for the lead with Adam Scott before a 73 saw him lose to the Australian by three. He trailed Hatton by two strokes at the Arnold Palmer Invitational last year before slumping to a 76. When the pressure’s on at the start of tournament, ie. the Majors, McIlroy struggles to produce from the outset. Expectation overcame him at The Open in Portrush where an opening 79 ended his tournament before it began. An opening 75 at November’s Masters where the Grand Slam burden weighs heavy on his head each year brought this reaction:

“I honestly have been playing so good coming in here and then I go into the first round and I shoot 75 and I’m like ‘where the hell did that come from?’”

And that’s the question that needs answering more often than not with the post 25-year old version of McIlroy. We all have our theories, some more convoluted than others, trying to put our finger on why, but for those relying on a McIlroy resurgence due to the sheer depth of his talent, there are no guarantees in golf.

As much as winning becomes habit, losing can quickly become one too and there is a confidence issue with McIlroy, there has to be. I can’t speak for what it’s like to be a top performing athlete, few can, but I can say that people change as they get older, and professional athletes are no different. I’m thirty now, a year younger than McIlroy and the 25-year old version of me was a much braver one, didn’t know the meaning of worry, never knew tell of a hangover. These days I’d weigh up the benefits of having a few drinks of a Saturday knowing that the Sunday blues were going to hit me like a prime Mike Tyson. You start to wonder if the highs are worth the lows.

Anxiety finds us all eventually and in golf, the slightest bit of tension can make all the difference. McIlroy has to find a way to overcome whatever demons are holding him back and to do that, unlike me with the gargle, he needs to keep putting himself in position to win, and to fail. Winning breeds winning and what a shot in the arm it would’ve been for the 31-year old to do it up against Hatton first time out this year.

But whatever the future holds for McIlroy, I’m grateful to be able to watch it and analyse it. He’s a once in a lifetime player, brought up in golf under the GUI banner, a generational talent that I’ll likely never see born on this island again. We lose sight of that sometimes in our criticisms of McIlroy. What Shane Lowry would’ve done to finish third in the UAE instead of missing out on Ryder Cup points and a weekend’s play. I guess it’s a testament to McIlroy that we expect so much from him. Who knows if he places the same expectations on himself. If he does, maybe they’re the things weighing him down?

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7 COMMENTS

  1. Still think he made a mistake sacking caddie J P Fitzgerald and his friendship with Harry is costing him. Too much small talk between shots etc. Business is business and he wont starve either way. He really is the best in the world and should be using current years to dominate and secure his legacy.

  2. The wind affected the putt, was that the first or the third putt,,what a poor excuse from a professional golfer,,I think one comment there re caddy is an fair one,when you need to fully concentrate on every shot and in between every shot you don’t need your best mate on the bag you need a professional caddie,one who knows exactly when to say something and when not,there is nothing wrong with his game other then the mental side,,I do think he needs to play a lot more in Europe where its tough and not in America in blazing sunshine every day,,too easy for too many lesser players to beat you,

  3. There’s a fair bit of technical default in his game.
    People are blasé about his long game, but remember, its your strengths that can catch you out, when you least expect it, when you’re under pressure, and you must keep them as your strengths.
    How many times has his, so called, excellent driving let him down, when he really needed it.
    He must stand up, and stop crowing about his driving, it’s not as good as he thinks it is. Quite often it can be his Achilles heel.
    ……he has to own up to these wickedly bad drives, miles right, miles left. I think he hit 3 fairways on Sunday.
    What about him missing the green with a wedge on 15 on Sunday.
    Would you see Lee Trevino miss a green with a wedge…..and Rory does it consistently. In fact he has done all those, in all those poor final rounds.
    My old Pro used to say, no pro should hit it outside 10 ft with a wedge.
    Look, I acknowledge that he is brilliant, (in several ways) and I’m so proud of him, and being an Irishman up there near the top of the World Rankings, but he must be a realist first, stop crowing, acknowledge his weaknesses, and let everybody get behind him, in sorting out his often erratic driving, and poor wedge play.
    Sky sports may also stop fawning him, giving him false praise.
    Sorry for being so blunt.

  4. We really must stop being so critical of Mcilroy.
    It stems from our wanting to see him always succeed, particularly as we have so few world class sports people in Ireland. He is without doubt the greatest golfer that Europe has ever seen and probably the most talented the world has seen. Of course this raises our expectations to exceptional levels, but be thankful for having such a talent and for what he has achieved, not moaning that he has not won everything. People who he could probably beat while giving a shot a hole should remember how difficult golf is.

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