Life In The Big Pool
Recently displaced from golf's top spot by friend and rival Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy arrives in Augusta trying to find his place in the game as much as his swing
On Thursday during the Shell Houston Open, at the 564-yard eighth hole of the Tournament Course at Redstone GC, Rory McIlroy sure didn't look like the best -- or second best -- golfer in the world. He tugged his drive into a left fairway bunker, hit the lip coming out, leaked a 5-wood into the water on the right, and made a sloppy double-bogey 7. On Friday, at the same hole, McIlroy hit two laser beams to reach the left fringe, then two-putted for the birdie that allowed him to make the cut.
Cold, hot, inconsistent -- last August seems like eons ago.
When McIlroy shot a bogey-free 66 in the final round of the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island's difficult Ocean Course -- and won by eight, the largest winning margin in an event staged at stroke play since 1958 -- he seemed to have this game figured out. Then 2013 happened, and his winning form became as elusive as a feather in the wind.
McIlroy's World Ranking has fallen from No. 1 to No. 2, but in the first two rounds at the Shell, he wasn't even the second-best golfer in his group. Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson played much more self-assured games (and shot lower scores). Rory's right, left, right, left off the tee seemed like directions to the airport.
He shot four-under 284 and finished T-45. At the 11th hour he decided to skip a long-scheduled return trip to earthquake-ravaged Haiti on behalf of UNICEF -- which after his first visit in June 2011 McIlroy said changed him -- and committed to play in San Antonio, admitting that he was suffering from rust. Humble, Texas, indeed.
Before play began near Houston, McIlroy endured the often-tortured convention that has become mandatory for his station: the pre-tournament media conference. After some feeling out, the subject turned -- without being explicitly verbalized -- to the root of the issue: Has McIlroy got what it takes to be comfortable at No. 1, to sustain the position, to truly be Tiger Woods' successor? His answers were honest and for the most part reasonable, but to questions that for many were seemingly resolved when he came back from a mini-slump to blow away the field at the PGA, they lacked in edge or defiance. Instead, there was tacit acknowledgment of a burden.
After making the cut on the number in Houston, McIlroy gave himself mixed grades after his eventual T-45. Photo: Scott Halleran/Getty Images
"I guess I have sort of got used to it over the past couple of years," he said. "It's OK. You go and just try to live your life as normally as you can. It's just the way of the world, social media and everything being so instant these days. ... We're not machines. We're humans. We go through highs and lows. It's just sport and golf."
The interview circled around to benign topics, until one reporter threw a fastball: "Is there a sense of relief not to be No. 1 at the moment?"
Knowing that he was revealing a lot, but perhaps relieved by the question itself, McIlroy carefully negotiated an answer. "I guess at the minute, yeah, with me trying to get my game back to where I think it can be," he said. "You know, it's nice to just go -- just go about my business and no one cares, but you go about it and not be, I guess, the most talked about person in golf. It's a nice thing."
In the largest sense, of course, McIlroy was right -- it is "just sport and golf." Things change, and adjustments need to be made to the physical game and the mental approach. He will turn 24 on May 4, a young man adjusting in full view, which makes the process that much harder. The other constant specter is Woods, not only his template of greatness that golf grew used to, but also his resurgence. And the Masters looms.
It's not an easy place to be. Though in retrospect, it is easy to see how McIlroy got there.
Rory was No. 1 when he arrived to defend his title at the Honda Classic. His only previous 2013 appearances had been Abu Dhabi in January, where he missed the cut, and the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where he lost in the first round.
Attendant pressures were on display at Honda. During practice and pro-am rounds, the PGA Tour allows autograph collectors to form a corridor between greens and tees; at PGA National, a motley lot of memorabilia traders beseeched and cajoled McIlroy while reaching over and between each other with outthrust photographs, posters, hats, gloves, flags.
"No pushing!" shouted a security guard, but there was pushing.
McIlroy is known as a signer, as Tiger is not, sharpening the lust for a round loopy R-o-r-y executed in black Sharpie. "Rory, Rory, Rory," murmured the insistent chorus. "For my sister," said one man with a shopping bag full of stuff to sign; he tried "for my daughter" a couple of holes later. As the golfer worked his way slowly forward, the lines on either side of the nylon rope collapsed, as the signature seekers in the front frantically looped around for another shot. They looked like a marching band performing a difficult maneuver.
McIlroy owns an upbeat personality, but these were uniformly cold transactions with no eye contact and no conversation, and precious few of the kids and grandpas for whom most players prefer to sign. Perhaps the grasping signature collectors are the world in miniature for golf's capo di tutti capi. Woods, and before him, Hogan, reacted to the goldfish bowl with silence and withdrawal, while Arnold Palmer was their smiling, gladly signing antipode. Rory looks far more Arnie than Ben, but then again, Tiger's era might be more voracious.