Rory McIlroy might be a former world No 1 but he refuses to come to terms with the scrutiny into his private life and business dealings that comes with his vaunted position in the game.
It was almost fitting that he ended the season with a listless bogey at Sherwood Country Club near Los Angeles, where he finished 11th behind winner Zach Johnson and host Tiger Woods in what was a thrilling finish to the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge before it leaves Sherwood Country Club and moves to Isleworth in Florida.
McIlroy bunkered his approach to his final hole and dribbled a five footer wide of the cup before tapping in for a closing 70, which could not have been any more low key in comparison with the dramatic way Johnson denied Woods his sixth title in the event that benefits his foundation — holing a 58-yard wedge at the 72nd hole to force a play-off before Woods lipped out from four feet at the first extra hole to concede victory.
“It’s been the first year where I have really had to put up with the scrutiny and criticism and I guess you just have to believe in what you are doing and not let it get to you too much,” McIlroy said before jetting home to his Florida base with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, the tennis star.
“I let it get to me a couple of times this year and it’s sort of a tough — not a tough position to be in, that’s not the right word — but it was a challenge for sure.”
What irks McIlroy is not the forensic examination of his game but the speculation about his private and business life — namely his relationship with Wozniacki and his acrimonious split with former agents Horizon Sports Management, which is set for resolution in the Commercial Court in Dublin next October.
Asked what aspect of the “scrutiny” annoyed him most, McIlroy said: “All the other stuff. I don’t care what people say about my golf, it’s all the other stuff. When they start digging into your personal life, start digging into that, then that’s where it starts to annoy you.
“Whether it is Caroline, whether it is management companies, it shouldn’t really be as a consequence as to how I play my golf. That gets at me more than anything else.”
It’s all a huge contrast to 12 months ago, when McIlroy completed a dream season by winning the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai to wrap up the money titles on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was just one of five-worldwide wins for the Holywood star in a season that brought him his second major title in the US PGA at Kiawah Island as well as a meteoric rise to world No 1 and every award in sight.
As a result of it all, he left for his Christmas break refusing to acknowledge he had signed one of the biggest endorsement contracts ever seen — a five year deal worth $20 million (€14.5m) a year with Nike. Life could not have been better.
“I obviously couldn’t say anything, more because of Titleist than Nike,” McIlroy said of his silence on the matter. “It was a little bit weird — the worst kept secret in golf.”
Fast forward 12 months, and the move to Nike is only just settling down after a season of struggles to find the right driver and ball combination, exacerbated by swing troubles and emotional meltdowns on the course, such as his walk out at the Honda Classic on March 1 or the 79 in the second round of The Open.
“Things are a bit more settled, which is a good thing,” McIlroy said of life one year after his Nike move. “I’m not going through an equipment change, not going through any of that, which is good. I can actually afford to take a couple of weeks off, which is going to be nice.
“It’s been a long season, a long stretch, so I am excited to put the clubs down and have a few weeks rest and get back at it in the new year.”
Reflecting on a year that only got going in the last two months, culminating in his Australian Open win two weeks ago, he said: “It was a year that, performance-wise, wasn’t what I wanted, but I guess I learned a little more about myself and a little more about my swing and about how the golf swing really works.
“What we have done well at the end of the year is how we work with my coach Michael Bannon in the off weeks. He leaves me alone during competitive weeks so I am not really working on things during tournaments, just to leave my mind a little clear.
“This has been my sixth full season as a pro, going into my seventh, so it’s quite a long time. It’s been good and most of the time it has been on an upward curve and I just plateaued a little but this year in terms of performance. But I feel like I am working hard and the game is much closer than it was in the middle of the year. That’s the most important thing.”
McIlroy is still in denial about what it means to be a global superstar in terms of the interest his every move generates in the media. It was interesting that more than one US observer remarked in LA last week how he appears to be a far more sullen character this year.
McIlroy knows he must become more emotionally stable, especially when it comes to the ups and down of the game.
“The way I play golf shouldn’t determine who I am as a person,” he said. “That’s sort of been the case sometimes this year.
“I’ve got really hard on myself if I haven’t played well, and that’s sort of carried through not just in my golf game, it’s just how I am, my demeanour and everything. So that’s something I feel like I’ve got better at and something I need to continue to get better at.”
As McIlroy and Wozniacki headed for the airport, Johnson was in the process of thrilling the record 25,000 crowd with the most incredible finish ever seen to the annual 18-man extravaganza, holing out from the drop zone at the 18th to force the play-off. Woods, two ahead with a round to play, appeared to be cruising when he moved four shots clear of Johnson with eight holes to play. But as has been so often the case on weekends in recent years, he proved distinctly fragile down the stretch.
Johnson rallied on the back nine and having birdied the 17th to draw level — he almost aced the 166-yard par-three — the title looked his when Woods found rough off the tee and bunkered his approach to the last. Not quite. Perfectly situated in the fairway, Johnson horribly shanked his eight iron into the hazard short right of the green.
Shaking his head later, he said: “I mean that was the worst shot I hit all day. It was probably the worst I hit all week. Worst shot I’ve hit in a long time.”
But it didn’t end there. Knowing he had to get up and down for a bogey at worst to have any chance of a playoff, Johnson sensationally holed out from 58 yards from the drop zone for a par-four, his ball hopping twice before spinning back into the cup.
Woods could only smile wryly as he looked on, but came up trumps with a sensational bunker shot to a couple of feet to force a play-off, shooting 70 to Johnson’s 68 as they finished four clear of Matt Kuchar and Bubba Watson on 13 under par.
Back to the 18th tee they went but while Johnson found the green in two and two putted for par, Woods again bunkered his second and lipped out with an awkward, four-foot, left to right slider to stay alive after finding a slightly tougher lie in the sand.
“It was pretty impressive what he did on 16, 17 and 18,” Woods said at the death, “and he got me.” It was a thrilling and at the same time, an anti-climactic finish to what the world No 1 described as a “pretty damn good year” in his post round presser.
While he appeared to right the ship late in the day, McIlroy could not quite say the same.
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