Most noted for his physical prowess and imperious ball-striking, McIlroy’s career to date has identified him more as an Arnold Palmer type than a Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods.
Flamboyant and charming, like Palmer before him, McIlroy understands the media and has quickly exploited the commercial side of his sport, so much so that today, the four-time major champion is not just one of the richest athletes on the planet but also one of the most recognisable.
He is a genuine superstar, who, much like Palmer, has endeared himself to fans worldwide. It is no wonder that from the earliest days of his career, McIlroy has had no shortage of sponsors wanting him to represent their brand on golf’s global platform. Sponsors like Jumeirah, Oakley, Footjoy, and Titleist early on and more latterly Nike, Omega, and TaylorMade.
In 2011, McIlroy delivered twice as much on-screen exposure in the US for his sponsors than Woods, but the scale of his global value was only truly understood once he signed a $250m (€211m) 10-year deal to replace Woods as Nike’s brand ambassador in 2013.
Much like the $100m (€84.3m) TaylorMade equipment deal signed earlier this year, these sums of money are enormous and largely incomprehensible to the average person, but while Nike and TaylorMade may have presented them as “good value”, we have seen from Nike’s exit from the equipment market in 2016 that they also represent a huge gamble.
Right now, McIlroy’s hugely fluctuating form will be concerning to sponsors. Backed as the right man to lead their respective brands, his inconsistency, coupled with his random commentary since turning pro — “I don’t care about growing the game of golf” — and his stance on the Olympics have caused consternation. Many have wondered if he has lost much of his motivation for the game.
As someone who has watched and commented on many aspects of his career to date, including the poor advice I feel he is getting from others around him, I have been particularly critical about his poor preparation for the major championships.
Take this year alone, where a rib injury, a change of equipment, and now a change of caddie have hampered and hugely compromised any chance he has of winning his fifth major.
From my perspective, it is simply incomprehensible that he would fire JP Fitzgerald (the man he credited for getting him back into the game at the Open Championship) at this time, regardless of how well or poorly they were getting along. How can he not see his value when they have already won together in the past at this week’s Bridgestone WGC event in Ohio and twice together at Quail Hollow, the venue for next week’s PGA Championship, the last major of the year?
By putting his best friend Harry Diamond on his bag for the next two weeks, no matter how good he is, McIlroy has selfishly ignored the ambitions of his sponsors and fans.
In his press interview at the Bridgestone WGC last night, McIlroy was frank and honest about his recent frustrations with his own game. He spoke about taking more responsibility — I for one hope that he is now true to his word on both fronts because in Jordan Spieth, McIlroy has a legitimate rival to his status as the world’s best player.
While McIlroy may be a more gifted striker, Spieth, at the moment, has more all-round ability. If McIlroy truly wants to bridge that gap then he needs to delegate more responsibility to others by way of lessening his load. That means employing the best caddie who will tell him what he needs to hear and not what he wants to hear. He has to learn to listen intently to the advice he is getting.
For a proud and stubborn McIlroy, that is not going to be easy but if he truly wants to get his game back on the right track, then he has to do whatever it takes or forever more be remembered as someone who didn’t fully realise his vast potential in the game.
Spieth is mentally stronger, has more shot variety, and is an infinitely better putter — which makes him the favourite of the two to reach a grand slam of majors first.
Surely that alone is enough motivation? For too long, McIlroy, who has the potential to be the most dominant player in golf for the next 10 years, has been guilty of relying on his majestic long game to cover over his many weaknesses, so marginal improvements in every department will make a huge difference.
Before he can achieve that, he must first be honest with the man in the mirror. Only then will he realise the best opportunity to deliver for himself, his sponsors, and his legion of fans who want him to succeed.