It was a runaway success from the start and Horizon Sports leveraged the Rory McIlroy brand for every penny it was worth since the Holywood golfer decided to switch and leave TeamISM. Doing so shortly after winning his first major at the age of 22, and equalling the record of two of golf's greatest icons, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger woods. It was a moment that set the talented young golfer on a track that made the media also expects him to win every tournament, and become another Tiger. Who with his customary red shirt on Sunday seemed to obliterate any field, very often by just showing up on the first tee box on the Sunday.
The speed of that progress was supposedly all under control and as the results started to roll in as Rory played more in the USA – something that ISM seemed against – he conquered America. Making his mark on the PGA Tour very quickly by winning the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island last summer, consolidating the Nicklaus Woods title trajectory in a very timely way. By adding the Deutsche and the BMW McIlroy confirmed his arrival, all of which first started in 2010 when at the tender age of 21 he won at Quail hollow. The return to The Honda Classic therefore this year was a formality, a visit to a happy hunting ground and the defence of a title that if he retained, would equal Nicklaus 1977 and 1978 record. So far unbeaten even after 35 years.
There was nothing in the build-up to suggest a problem.
Except in hindsight perhaps, as his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki collapsed out of the Malaysian Open in the first round, beaten by qualifier Wang Qiang. The Dane, who was feeling unwell after suffering a high temperature, hardly chased Wang's returns in the closing stages of the match in Kuala Lumpur and lost 2-6, 7-6 (7-1), 6-1. A result that had come on the foot of gossip in the week that suggested that “Wozzilroy” were engaged. Or about to do so after Wozniacki seemed obliged to tell reporters: “I enjoy everything that’s happening right now and how things are. Marriage? We’re still young and we have many years in front of us.”
When asked if she would accept now if McIlroy proposed, she burst into laughter, saying: “This is getting personal.”
Thousands of miles away McIlroy was then leaving the PGA National without even completing the ninth whole saying to some reporters within earshot: “There’s not really much I can say, guys,”
“I’m not in a good place mentally, you know?”
When asked about his swing, the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland replied, “Yeah, I really don’t know what’s going on.”
About an hour after he left, McIlroy released a statement that pinned his withdrawal on dental problems.
It is very surprising that a major issue should not have been detected by someone in his usually extensive entourage before it reached that stage.
But then again maybe it should not be a total surprise as at Medinah McIlroy was close to missing his tee off time on the final day of the Ryder Cup - after getting his US time zones mixed up. It was a state trooper that got him to the course within the allotted time limit and his vital singles match against Keegan Bradley. And regardless of the happy outcome for Europe in the end it seems bizarre that such a lapse by his team was allowed occur. In sports management a lot of tough love is required at these key moments as few of the top athletes in the world are without flaws – surprisingly human like the rest of us. Many only find success because of the enforcers around them who ensure that all the little things are done properly.
At Palm Beach Gardens this week something vital somewhere was clearly missed.
There is also a worry about the ten year Nike deal. Not the deal itself, but the very public manner in which it was handled and the apparent lack of any visible transition from Titleist for the golfer. Given McIlroy seemed to just start suddenly playing with the Nike clubs as soon as he reached Abu Dhabi for the PR launch in January. Something not even Woods did that swiftly. In fact, engaging in a much slower move over, perhaps knowing that even the subtlest of equipment changes can make for trouble. A point that Sir Nick Faldo was very vocal about, albeit his experiences were dismissed by Rory it seems, perhaps believing there was some malice in the remarks.
Yet the truth is Faldo is less into mind games these days and a better analyst as a result of his own stubbornness and learning’s on the course, which at times caused him visible setbacks. Indeed with age he has matured into a connoisseur of the game and from the commentary he often shares his rich expertise.
On another level, the switch made by Graeme McDowell in 2011 to Srixon - even if less lucrative and high profile - should have highlighted the pitfalls with his stable. It summarily showed how a winner of everything in 2010 could suddenly become a loser of everything in 2011 and 2012. Indeed, only now is GMAC returning with a vengeance and at the Honda Classic is hunting down his first win in nearly three years. Yet looking from the outside Horizon Sports seemed to believe that McIlroy was indefatigable and indestructible. And perhaps we all did, despite all the naysayer’s warnings, as thus far the double major winner has surprised everybody with his apparent ability to handle everything – bar the tenth at Augusta in 2010.
More importantly, it seemed his added strength was being able to bounce back after adversity – and win. No better example than Kiawah Island – which came after a string of missed cuts and a torrid few days at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
But meltdowns happen, and can shake the most talented of stars. Just ask Sergio Garcia one of the last European prodigies before McIlroy’s arrival, who will still not look forward to a return to Whistling Straits in 2 years - after his televised meltdown a few years in one of the bunkers at the PGA Championship. But Garcia, now some years later - like many who fell out of love with the game – proves that distance is a healer. Which is what Rory had promised to do over the close season and apparently did spending weeks with girlfriend Wozniacki in Australia for the start of the tennis swing down under. All to ready him for the new season.
Regretfully it failed at the first hurdle.
At the much hyped appearance of Woods and McIlroy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship but missing the cut. After which he stuck with his planned weeks off before the WGC-Accenture matchplay. In the first round in Tucson he lost to his friend Shane Lowry, who was appearing in the Arizona Desert for the first time, and then arrived at the PGA National to play only one round and eight holes before bolting off the course - inexplicably. Only to release a statement later about wisdom teeth trouble.
As Rory now reflects over the 14 days about how he formally presents his departure to the PGA Tour, the sponsors Honda, he has established an unfortunate new record of his own that Woods and Nicklaus have never matched.
But whatever the reason for his decision one now has to wonder about the weight of carrying an ever increasing number of sponsors, Bose being added only two nights ago. All adding to the existing demands of being world number 1 on his ready limited free time. Which is a mix of an idyllic lifestyle crisscrossing the world to meet up with his girlfriend and many breaks in-between tournaments. Begging the question about self-discipline? And, or, practice time, something that Tiger Woods almost did to in exess. And even Padraig Harrington suffered for over the years.
Regardless of his natural talent it seems that this is an area where McIlroy should spend more time – even if it is just to reduce the distractions and get some time on his own.
For all major achievers in sport over the years it is self-discipline or obsessiveness – enforced or self-inflicted – that has brought success. Even if at a cost to their personal lives. Be it Bjorn Borg so carefully mastered by Lennart Bergelin to set records at Wimbledon, or Andre Agassi's tough daily routine from his Father in Las Vegas that won him the majors. Or indeed Tiger’s military style upbringing under his Father Earl. A structure is clearly needed to retain focus. Albeit not perfect.
All of us left to our own devices would skip homework if we had enough cash in the bank.
At times too, the talent needs to be stopped making decisions for their own health and survival and just told what to do and where to be. Not a pretty sight at times. But a must to achieve greatness in any sport.
If all this is being done by his entourage already, then something else is afoot and it is more serious than wisdom teeth.
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