Becoming No. 1 never seemed much of a problem for Rory McIlroy. Being No. 1 has proved a bit more troublesome.
The trouble is what packed the media interview room just off the main lobby of the Doral Resort & Spa on Wednesday. You would have thought new owner Donald Trump was in there giving away money by the wall-to-wall crowd.
Instead, in walked McIlroy, the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland, golfing prince, presumptive heir to Tiger Woods’ former dominance — but now reduced to the role of a struggling kid trying to explain himself as the PGA Tour’s World Golf Championships event sets sail Thursday across Doral’s famed Blue Monster.
It isn’t that McIlroy has been singed by a sudden spotlight that blindsided him. When you already have won a U.S. Open and a PGA Championship — both by eight-stroke runaways — ascended to the top of the World Golf Rankings and also happen to be dating pro tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, the concept of attention is no surprise.
No, what McIlroy is dealing with now is his own fallibility, and the undue burden of expectations he heaps upon himself. No degree in psychology is required to imagine he just needs to relax, to not carry No. 1 like a heavy yoke around his neck.
“I have to go out there and enjoy myself. Dave Stockton said to me, ‘Smile more,’ ” McIlroy said Wednesday, in that Irish lilt that always seems like golf’s proper soundtrack. “I haven’t been enjoying it because I’ve been putting so much pressure on myself.”
McIlroy busted on to the PGA Tour with a big year in 2011, ratcheted that up to a phenomenal 2012 and assumed all of that ascending would carry over into this year. But it hasn’t in his first three tournaments so far in 2013 as he adjusts to new equipment (after signing with Nike) and changes in his swing. Iron play has especially bedeviled him.
He missed the cut in a European event at Abu Dhabi, was ousted in the opening round of the season’s first World Golf Championship event in Arizona, then committed the mortal golfing sin of withdrawing from last week’s Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens without good cause — for which he has since unequivocally apologized.
McIlroy in withdrawing mid-second round Friday explained then he was “in a bad place mentally,” which sounded like honesty. He later said he was troubled by a sore wisdom tooth, which sounded like a way of limboing inside the rule that states one may only withdraw for a medical or physical reason.
In any case, “in a bad place mentally” suggested to Freudian golf writers that McIlroy was burdened by more than just a hitch in his swing, so the probing was immediate. Were there off-course “issues?” Had he and Wozniacki broken up?
“Not at all,” McIlroy said, discovering maybe for the first time that a No. 1 ranking lays one’s life bare, not just one’s game. “Just because I have a bad day on the course or Caroline loses a match in Malaysia doesn’t mean we’re breaking up!”
(He said they would see each other next week in Miami when McIlroy stays here after Doral to greet Wozniacki as she arrives for the Sony Open in Key Biscayne.)
I think too much has been made of McIlroy’s abrupt withdrawal, perhaps because it was his first real public blemish.