The walk from the practice range to the first tee at Muirfield can’t be much more than a couple hundred yards, yet it’s treacherous. Here was Rory McIlroy’s task Wednesday afternoon, his task this week, his task in his life: traverse the ground beneath him swiftly, with his gaze ahead, even as the voices around him call for something different, something else, something more. They all want more.
McIlroy signed autographs on that walk Wednesday — flags, hats, scorecards, tickets — just 20 hours before he was due to begin what will be his sixth British Open. He then reported to the first tee for his final nine holes of practice, pulled a 3-wood, and preceded to hit one ball, then another, into the wispy heather right of the fairway. He strode off the tee, his gaze forward still, and played the balls where they ended up.
“It’s been difficult to try, I guess, to explain why I’m not playing well or why I haven’t had the results that I’ve wanted over the past six months,” McIlroy said. “But I know that I’m working on the right things, and I know that I’m doing the right things, and I’m staying patient.”
If only everyone else could remain so. Not since Tiger Woods was McIlroy’s age — still just 24 — has golf seen a character whose every shot, every move, was this picked apart. Last summer, he won the PGA Championship, his second major in as many years. He closed the season with three more wins, a second and a third in his final seven starts.
And now, since his 2013 has been littered with lousy results — three missed cuts, a bizarre withdrawal, just one finish in the top five and nary a win — and he has uprooted from his Northern Ireland home to Florida, and he appears in the process of switching his management company for the second time in as many years, and he spends off weeks in Monaco with his tennis-playing girlfriend, and he actually seems to need to get away from his sport . . . well, some in golf won’t have it.
“You need 100 percent concentration — off the golf course, practicing — as well,” said three-time Open champion Nick Faldo earlier in the week. “Most ideal thing is to go to the club [at] 9 in the morning, hit balls all day long, and you leave at 5. …
“You have a window of opportunity. That’s my only words of wisdom to Rory. You have, say, a 20-year window as an athlete. Concentrate on golf, nothing else.”
McIlroy’s retort Wednesday: He had arrived at the range at 6:15 a.m. Tuesday and finally departed the gym at 6:15 p.m., “actually a 12-hour day compared to his eight-hour day.” He came to Muirfield a week early and has played what 108 holes — the equivalent of six full rounds — of preparation.
“Nick should know how hard this game is at times,” McIlroy said.
The field here is 156 strong, and each of them, in their own way, knows precisely how difficult it is. But even as Faldo, say, in his prime, went through divorces and became fodder for the Fleet Street tabloids, he never had his golf game dissected as McIlroy’s is. Sergio Garcia, when he was just entering his 20s, had much expected of him, and his failures — and some of his high-profile romantic relationships — were analyzed. Phil Mickelson’s quest for a major, which ended in 2004, was a sustaining story line for a time.
But really, only Woods knows what McIlroy is enduring. He won the first major he entered as a professional, a virtuoso performance in the 1997 Masters, but rebuilt his swing shortly thereafter, a change that took more than a year. At one point, closing the 1998 season and starting 1999, he went 14 tournaments without a victory. McIlroy’s winless streak now: 13.
“There’s a lot of questions of, ‘Why would you change something and do this, do that?’ And, ‘How could you change something that won the Masters by 12?’” Woods said.
“I’ve gone through that process. I think that for him, he’s going through that right now, and he’s making some alterations. Only he knows it’s for the betterment of his game. People obviously speculate and analyze and hypothesize about what he should or shouldn’t do, but deep down, he knows what he’s doing.”
When McIlroy plays well, he is all but unmatchable, and his play seeps into his demeanor. Watch him hit a brilliant shot, and the exuberance of youth flows from him, as if he’ll always be the 22-year-old who utterly slayed Congressional Country Club to take the 2011 U.S. Open. He doesn’t do stoic, so when he plays poorly, his shoulders slump and his eyes fall to the earth for all the world to see. He can, too, be honest, as he was when he missed the cut two weeks ago at the Irish Open, and said he was “feeling a bit lost at the moment.”
But he also tries to balance his disappointment with his own understanding that he’ll never be like Faldo, obsessive about golf to the exclusion of all else. He does not, he said, consider the scrutiny unfair.
“The thing I think is: What’s the big deal?” McIlroy said. “I haven’t had the best sixth months, but it’s okay. I’m fine. I’ve got a good life.”
Plus, at 24, he seems to realize that while everyone else appears in the moment and in his business — concerned about the new driver he’ll use this week, about his recent results, about his relationships — he has already gone through this before. Entering the British Open a year ago, he had missed four cuts in six events, including at the U.S. Open.
“We always say: Form is temporary and class is permanent,” said McIlroy’s friend and Graeme McDowell, himself a major champion. “And he’s a class player.”
Wednesday afternoon, as he made his way from the first green to the second tee, McIlroy heard the kids along the rope lines calling, “Rory. Rory! RoryRoryRory!!” as if he wasn’t standing right in front of them. He pulled out his Sharpie, and signed again and again. And again.
When he finished the second hole, he stopped for an interview with the BBC. And then he walked to the third tee, where he met his caddie, J.P. McManus; his swing coach, Michael Bannon; and his father, Gerry. There are the people who know the intricacies of his game and his life, and when McIlroy striped an iron down the center of the fairway, they walked in unison, their gazes straight down the fairway to the week — and the rest of the season — still ahead. Their stroll was easy. No one else need be involved.