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.
He didn’t get busted for DUI, test positive for steroids, cheat on his scorecard, throw his clubs into a lake or bludgeon a spectator with a 4-iron. He wasn’t scandalized as a serial womanizer leading to a tabloid divorce (like some other golf star who shall go nameless).
McIlroy let his frustration reach a hard boil and made a bad, knee-jerk decision, that’s all. A man is not yet fully formed at 23. McIlroy admits he is still learning about himself, and about the role of No. 1.
He acknowledges he no longer enjoys what he neatly called “the pleasure of making mistakes in private.” He also thinks his controversial Honda withdrawal could end up serving him well.
“I actually think in the long run Friday will be a blessing in disguise,” he said. “It was like it just sort of released a valve and all that pressure I’ve been putting on myself just went away. It’s not life or death out there. It’s only a game. I had sort of forgotten that this year.”
McIlroy could find it a challenge to be that looser, smiling version of himself Thursday as he is paired with the world’s second-ranked player, some guy named Tiger Woods, in a threesome also including English star Luke Donald.
Woods at 37 still is the PGA Tour’s biggest and most intimidating star and has seemed to have recovered some of his mojo, although his majors total has been stuck on 14 since his last, the U.S. Open, in 2008.
Woods and McIlroy in the same group are guaranteed to draw by far the biggest crowds at Doral. From an aerial view, their gallery would resemble a colony of ants attacking a sugar bowl.
No one better than Woods can relate to what McIlroy is going through. Woods has been one of the most scrutinized athletes ever, on and off the course, but he says in some ways McIlroy has it tougher.
“This is a slightly different era,” Woods said last week during the Honda, contrasting to the late 1990s when he was a rising star. “It’s even faster than it was when I came out. Now everything is instantaneous around the world. We were still in fax machines.”
Woods and McIlroy both are at a level at which every tournament — even the prestigious WGC events like Doral — seem more like glorified tune-ups for the year’s four majors, the first of which is The Masters next month.
Woods is still chasing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Some think McIlroy has the best chance to challenge those two someday.
Nicklaus himself said last week he still thinks Woods has a chance to catch him, but the Wise Old Bear offered this gentle tweak: “He’d better get going.”
Nicklaus also has been something of a mentor to McIlroy. Jack is old-school — “It’s your talent that plays, not the clubs” — and thinks the younger man will master his new clubs and tinkered-with swing.
“He’s frustrated with himself right now, but he’ll be fine,” Nicklaus said. “When Augusta rolls around, he’ll be fine.”
The juxtaposition of Woods and McIlroy, here this week and in general, is too perfect. Rory had a poster of Woods on the wall of his bedroom growing up in Holywood, County Down, Northern Ireland — and also a framed photo of Woods’ winning scorecard from the ’97 Masters.
Now Woods is the aging king who isn’t ready to give up his crown without a good fight, and McIlroy is the waiting prince out to reaffirm his claim to golf’s royalty.
They will be jousting atop the Doral leaderboard all of Sunday afternoon, if the golf gods are of a mind to give us a show.