Few will argue with the hugely positive impact Rory McIlroy has had on the game of golf, both as an amateur and professional.
Where once his trick piece was hitting golf balls into his washing machine at home, nowadays few sportsmen, of any code, command more commercial attention.
While there is no doubt he is one of the greatest ball strikers to grace the professional game, to most of his armchair fans McIlroy remains frustratingly inconsistent, both on and off the golf course.
As in any professional sport, the higher the performance ladder you climb the tighter the margins get in terms of separating an individual’s performance from the chasing pack. On the course, McIlroy’s superior ball-striking has given him a huge advantage over the rest of the field.
But when it comes to the fine margins, McIlroy has invariably needed to build a big enough lead to compensate for a putting game that betrays the trials and tribulations of a frustrated amateur rather than a top professional.
McIlroy’s performance peaks and lows form part of his popular appeal but how does he view himself privately? Does he know himself that he has not come close to realising his potential in the game?
He’s still young but with every passing year, aspirations and sound bites that tell us he is “as ambitious now as I was starting off my career” count for little. McIlroy needs to start consistently making his statements through his on-course performances and especially in the major championships as they will define his legacy in the game.
So I am not surprised to see McIlroy finally decide to take matters into his own hands if he is ever to realise his goals in the game of golf. Much like Tiger Woods and all of the other great golfers before him, he realises that satisfying public sentiment counts for nothing in a player’s final resume. It may annoy many people but in time he will be judged by his performances.
That said, he could let people and sponsors down with a little more class.
He announced a possible change to his 2019 playing schedule in a press conference ahead of last season’s European Tour’s finale, the DP World Final, knowing full well the ramifications it would cause. It smacked of an immature individual seeking attention.
Of course, McIlroy is not immature and nor are the individuals who represent his commercial interests. But the private outrage among European Tour officials and its sponsors over the timing of his comments, as well as the subsequent public utterances of Paul McGinley, who had agreed to take over the stewardship of the Irish Open, suggested McIlroy was not just wrong but bang out of order.
One of the ramifications of what McIlroy said in that press conference last year sadly came to pass yesterday when he confirmed his absence from this year’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open to be played at Lahinch from July 4 July 7.
As someone who has been very closely associated with the Irish Open for many years, I can tell you that no Irish professional golfer has done more than McIlroy in recent years to resurrect its status on the European Tour schedule, through his foundation, the Irish Open’s sponsors Dubai Duty Free and Rolex as well as the European Tour, who facilitated a date change to the more favourable first weekend in July.
That he and his foundation decided to walk away last year came as no surprise to anyone closely involved with the tournament. He had poured huge personal energy and commitment into the tournament and something had to give. However, walking away entirely from the event is a crushing blow to everyone associated with it.
From the European Tour’s perspective, an Irish Open without Rory McIlroy means a tournament with fewer world ranking points, which means less publicity. In turn that makes it less attractive to sponsors like Dubai Duty Free and Rolex. For the tournament host Paul McGinley, McIlroy’s non-participation makes attracting other world superstars a more difficult task. As for Lahinch and the Irish public in general, it most likely means the loss of the only truly world class player in the field as well as the most likely Irish candidate to win an Irish Open in 2019 on home soil.
From McIlroy’s point of view, the scheduling trade-off this year is obviously worth the gamble. While no one doubts that his number one goal for the year is to win the Masters and complete his career Grand Slam, the prospect of winning an Open Championship in Northern Ireland just a couple of week later, is a close second.
If realised, it should be enough to appease his legion of Irish fans, throughout the 32 counties.
Going forward, it will now be very interesting to see the steps McIlroy takes to consistently improve his short game and especially his putting stats. His new schedule means he will be travelling less and competing on more consistent and faster putting surfaces.
My major reservations still lie with others around him, especially his caddie, and the need for them to carry more of his workload — something he has consistently resisted in the past.
It all comes back to those fine margins. The best players have always found a way to get them working in their favour when it matters most. Should McIlroy manage to achieve both goals his goals this year, then no one will be quicker to applaud him for changing up his schedule.