PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Rory McIlroy has cut all the fun out of his hair. The black mane that was once so rife with curls has been trimmed back at the ears and sheared off at the neck. It’s statement hair: here is a young man trying to gain control of his head.
A year ago McIlroy was the No.1 player in the world and won the PGA Championship by a record eight strokes. This year, the 24-year-old Northern Irishman has been a mess, as he has clearly struggled to learn the full, grinding meaning of professionalism. Veteran observers Johnny Miller and Nick Faldo have scolded him for being too distracted and squandering the season, a charge borne out by his results. He’s finished among the top six just once, missed five cuts including walking off the course after 26 holes at the Honda Classic, and shot over par in every major so far. At the British Open he called himself “unconscious.”
Then, this week, McIlroy whacked his hair and watched some old video of himself when he was swinging well, “swinging it like you’re giving it your all and ripping through the ball,” he said. With that, the greatest young player in the game has seemed on the verge of getting his mind right again. His opening round of 1-under-par 69 in the PGA Championship came on an Oak Hill course that punishes foolishness and demands total concentration. Lined by towering gnarled trees, with thin-necked fairways, hairpin turns and heavy graduated rough, a single distracted or careless stroke can mean disaster, as both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson could attest with double bogeys on their final holes on Thursday.
McIlroy’s pleasure at being able to turn in a round that was both disciplined and smooth swinging was visible — you even see it in his walk, the swagger as he strode down the fairway. His body language was something else McIlroy had studied on tape, along with correcting his swing positions. “It’s how you carry yourself, its all that sort of stuff, your little mannerisms,” he said earlier this week. “ . . . I think everyone sees when I walk and I’m playing well I have that little bounce in my step.”
McIlroy plays his best golf when he feels fluid and unself-conscious, and that hasn’t been his state of being this season, with so much swirling around him all at once. He’s struggled with new equipment and the expectations of a Nike contract worth a reported $20 million a year. He’s juggled romance with tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. He’s undergone two management changes in 18 months, parted with his former Dublin-based managers and launched his own management group.
“You know, I think sometimes we forget how young he is, and what he’s been able to achieve at a very early age,” Ian Poulter said. “. . . That natural swing of his doesn’t just disappear overnight, and I think he’s had to cope with an awful lot of things and changes that he’s had in the last 10 months. . . . So the second all that clears up and we give him a break, then you’ll see Rory playing some great golf.”
What we’ve been watching is a 24-year-old trying to figure out what it takes to be a great player for the duration, not just one or two hot seasons. McIlroy might be the most supremely gifted player in the world, but he’s discovered what real focus means, and what lack of it can cost him. “I guess I’ve learnt to maybe not listen as much or not read as much or not look as much,” he said. “Just sort of wrap yourself in your own little bubble.” Or, as he put it more amusingly in a TV interview earlier this year, “If you want to be in the circus, you have to put up with the clowns.”
He’s also discovered what distractions can do to even the finest golf swing. McIlroy’s swing is a liquid thing, but if it’s an easy seeming motion, it also requires constant tuneups. It’s such a fast, dynamic motion that timing is essential; otherwise his upper and lower body get out of synch. “I think my speed, the speed of my body through the ball has always been — it’s been one of my biggest advantages, and maybe one of my disadvantages as well,” he said, “because when you have so much speed through the ball, you need to time it perfectly for it to work well all the time.”
This week at Oak Hill, McIlroy is “trying to tease it back to where it should be.” The player who cruised through the opening round was at once more free swinging and yet concentrated than in some time. He was also more self-possessed and serious-seeming; there didn’t seem to be as much of the old goofy, shambling boy about him. But maybe that was just the haircut. Asked what moved him to crop all that wild hair, he said, “It was getting a little hot under there. So it’s better. It’s better.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.