By Ryan David, GolfWRX Contributor
Rory McIlroy isn’t making it easy to be a fan lately. A missed cut in Dubai and a Round-1 loss at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship stirred many observers into voicing concern for his game. His withdraw from the Honda Classic midway through the second round after a miserable start made will make things even worse.
It’s obvious that McIlroy’s has become cluttered in 2013. Swirling in his head is the pressure to perform, keep his No. 1 ranking, play nice with the media and do right by his new equipment sponsor, Nike, who will dump generational wealth into his bank account in the coming years. It should come as no surprise that his game, the physical manfiestation of his mental state, has suffered.
As much as his new clubs are talked about, they’re not the culprit of his struggles. Yes, his entire bag changed, and it may have not been in McIlroy’s best interests to make an equipment change if he hoped to carry over all the momentum he built for himself in 2012. But McIlroy’s real problems are his swing mechanics.
He’s admitted that he’s “under plane” and has said that he’s been working on his swing during rounds — not a place golfers want to be mentally when fractions of an inch can mean the difference between making the cut and packing their bags. The bottom line is that Rory left Nike’s R&D facility, The Oven, with clubs very similar to his Titleists, but with a swing that was flawed.
The Nike deal itself was enough to layer unreasonable pressure to perform. It instantly made the 23-year-old one of the highest paid athletes in professional sports. Along with the money, the timing of the deal dictated that Rory spend his normal vacation time getting acquainted with his new sponsor and their product.
Rory has also had to deal with a new level of celebrity in his personal life. With a high-profile significant other, Rory has been subject to the same kind of media coverage akin to TMZ. I personally remember my Twitter feed full of marriage speculation that Rory actually responded to. Actual journalists were kicking the question about whether or not he was ready to marry back and forth. A slow news day, perhaps, but also an indicator of the scrutiny placed on an athlete suddenly thrust into the mainstream limelight.
Nike is also a much different animal in terms of media responsibilities and requirements. Before the season even kicked off, he had already starred in a feature spot TV spot. In his understanding that he is under a new, more powerful media microscope, Rory seems to be struggling with the pressure. He appears physically and mentally exhausted on the course and in the interview room.
Now, think back to his play last year. For the most part, you remember the absolute ease in which he won the PGA Championship and his top-notch play in August and September. For a minute, though, think about May and June. He missed the cut at the The Players, The Memorial and the U.S. Open. He finally clicked when he found his swing and reportedly “stopped thinking about it.” Are we seeing shades of May 2012 Rory? Perhaps. A reboot of his mental state will undoubtedly reboot his swing and most certainly lead to the McIlroy that holds trophies on Sundays.
Obviously, something was bothering him mentally and physically when he withdrew on Friday. He certainly could have handled it better, but a deeper look into his recent activity reveals some of the burnout associated with being a high-paid, high-pressure athlete at the top of the game. It’s easy to judge him harshly and not to sympathize, and many analysts have. Me? I’m not jumping on that train, nor am I counting him (or his clubs) out just yet.