He knows he is a vastly better player than his recent performances suggest but until he realises some immediate milestones — a halfway cut, a top 10 performance, a win — then he is going to have to continually defend himself at news conferences.
Last week, at the Scottish Open, he spoke about sounding like a “broken record” at his press conference — trying to convince the world’s media that his game was close but who is he really kidding? Such is the polarising inconsistency in his game right now that it is concerning and, more and more, the journalists who follow the Tours’ all year long are beginning to say so too.
While accepting that McIlroy is not about to wither away, such is the consistent deterioration in his game — like his abject performance over the opening nine holes yesterday at Royal Birkdale — that some journalists are now openly questioning whether we have already seen the best of him.
Premature as that may sound, Rory hasn’t been 100% fit or really competitive in major championships for the past two and a half years and his current body language suggests that mentally and physically, he just isn’t fully “there”. It’s almost as if he is struggling to stay motivated.
Why? Who knows but let’s look at a few facts. When Rory McIlroy turned professional in 2007, his stated ambition was to be the best player in the world, something he achieved in 2012. Rivalry is great thing. Messi had Ronaldo, Federer had Nadal and McIlroy had Tiger Woods. Rivals keep each other on their tip-toes. Fighting and struggling to beat or out match the other, McIlroy has always measured himself against Woods and now that he is more or less done playing, the question has to be asked — in McIlroy’s eyes, are Spieth, Day, and Johnson really rivals or are they just brilliant players taking advantage of his slump in form?
McIlroy has never been a complete golfer. His putting has put paid to that, but on form he has a competitive instinct that only Woods can match. He is happy to give up eight shots a tournament to his closest rivals on the putting green — because he knows that when on form he can still win.
And then there is the money. In a few short years, McIlroy has already become one of the richest men in professional sport. Wanting for little, is he as motivated or even as excited about the game as he once was? Does the image of an invincible, rich, and famous player suit him anymore? What about the motivation to achieve a career “Grand Slam” of Majors?
For those people on the outside looking in, they need to realise that professional golf is a tough, tough individual sport — so does McIlroy now feel “broken” from being the global face of professional golf, now that Tiger has left the scene? Remember Bjorn Borg stopped playing tennis when he was 26 because he felt the pressure was too great on him.
Recently married, have McIlroy’s priorities changed?
While everyone recognises that switching off is sometimes healthy, it still begs the question does he really want to engage any longer in the fight — or are we in fact misinterpreting what is happening with him?
As someone who been inside the ropes and who has hit those shots, I would like to think that I have some understanding of what McIlroy is going through at this moment in time — but not at his level.
I understand that the longer you play, the more likely you’re going to have spells where your golf game is awful but Rory’s fight to get back to where he rightfully belongs — much like Tiger and Seve of old will now be done through the public scrutiny of press and fans. It’s just the nature of professional sport.
During that time, it will be hard for him to be the perfect role model, but he simply must continue to plug along. With the right attitude, he will eventually, turn the corner. So, don’t sound the panic bells just yet. He will get back but his trials and tribulations offer a cruel reminder of just how fickle professional sports can be when your mindset is not right.