Still no clear reason why McIlroy is derailed

Rory McIlroy during practice for the 2013 U.S. Open.

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— Asked to assess how one goes about solving the mystery of this 142d Open Championship, Rory McIlroy offered that, “This week is about imagination.”

It was a testament to the charms and challenges of Muirfield, as majestic a links as there is. But McIlroy could just as well have been explaining the media’s continued quest to pinpoint what exactly has derailed the once seemingly unstoppable golf dynamo.

Last summer and fall, McIlroy seemed to be unbeatable in his last 10 tournaments of the PGA Tour and European Tour seasons – he won four times and finished top 10 nine times, delivering upon his heralded promise. He was what the golf world had asked for: a dominant player, someone to not only stand up to Tiger Woods, but surpass him in the world order. To the media, McIlroy was refreshing, honest, playful, and genuine – and wouldn’t that present a contrast from all the years of Woods, the master at speaking not from the heart but from a guarded perch.

It was not even a year ago – 11 months, to be exact – when in the darkness of a warm Kiawah Island night, McIlroy stood and fielded questions from what might have been his fourth group of reporters, or was it a fifth? He had won the PGA Championship in smashing fashion and after meeting his obligation with network TV, then international TV, then radio, and then local journalists, the mass throng of media folks got their chance. Still cooperative, McIlroy after that broke off and chatted with reporters from some American outlets, but mostly he accommodated the European press.

No stopwatch had ever been assigned to the occasion, but safe to say it had been two hours since his second major had been won, and never once did McIlroy appear anything but willing to share his time. He was humble and personal, smiling and gracious. The good times, how they were rolling.

But on yet another pleasant day on Scotland’s southeast coast, McIlroy on Wednesday morning appeared in the media center during the last practice day of the 2013 Open Championship and seemed light years removed from the comfort of Kiawah Island. Smiles weren’t as plentiful, answers not as playful, body language not as carefree.

It could be an understandable byproduct of the struggles that 2013 have presented, but what it isn’t, McIlroy insists, is a defensive reaction to the media scrutiny and criticism that has come his way. Though he is quick to say his attitude “is promising; I’m headed in the right direction,” McIlroy knows his play has been scratchy, at best. He’s recorded three top 10s, but no wins, in 10 PGA Tour tournaments; he has missed the cut in each of three European Tour starts; and in the two majors McIlroy has been 16-over without a round in the 60s.

Relentless streams of words have pinned the blame on McIlroy’s switch from Titleist ball and clubs to Nike, on his relationship with Caroline Wozniacki, on a full-time move to the United States, on a second change of management company in less than two years, on a lack of competitive tournaments.

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McIlroy knows the critics are out there, but he claims he doesn’t feel piled on. If he had an answer to all of this, it would be for media folks to tone down the rhetoric, to relax and get perspective.

“What’s the big deal?” McIlroy said. “I haven’t had the best six months, but it’s OK. I’m fine. I’ve got a good life. It doesn’t bother me; I’m in a good place.”

Having ridden the wildly successful 2012 season to No. 1 in the world order, McIlroy’s slump has coincided with four wins by Tiger Woods, who has regained the top spot. He’s now No. 2, but if you were to gauge the media, you might McIlroy were 200th.

How do you combat that?

“I guess the best way is to not read too much or not listen too much or not watch too much TV – especially not about yourself,” McIlroy said.

Yet he conceded that he had heard about Nick Faldo’s thoughts, that perhaps the kid from Northern Ireland needed to spend more time focused on his golf, make it more like a 9-to-5 job.

“I actually was on the range at 6:15 (a.m.) and got out of the gym at 6:15 (p.m.) yesterday,” McIlroy said. “Actually a 12-hour day, compared to his (suggested) eight-hour day.”

Shaking his head, McIlroy added: “(Faldo) should know how hard this game is, at times. He’s been in our position before. He should know how much work that we all do put into it.”

If he were disgusted, McIlroy didn’t sound it. Frustrated, perhaps, but not bitter or angry – and it’s hard not to blame him. He’s been on the world stage for more than five years now, having made his Open Championship debut as an amateur in 2007, then following through with a steady stream of progress after turning pro in 2008. His pro debut on American soil? He finished T-5 in the Accenture Match Play Championship. In 2010 he shot a closing 62 to storm to victory in the Quail Hollow Championship and in a 2011 U.S. Open missing Woods’ star power, McIlroy put on an exhibition to make people to forget that. Then came the delivery of a four-win PGA Tour season in 2012, the rise to No. 1, and confirmation that he was a massive fan favorite.

He was equally popular with the media, too, for every step of the way McIlroy has shown nothing but respect and graciousness. So while he might not outwardly wonder why reporters have directed a sour pen toward him, it’s a fair observation. One recent story seemed to question McIlroy’s character, a seemingly careless and excessive stretch given the abundance of time he’s accommodated people.

He’s played a few months of golf that have been below his very high standards, no question about that. But good gracious, could it be that he’s 24 and juggling a series of issues that need time to be sorted out?

McIlroy seems to think so.

“I’m pretty laid back when it comes to these sorts of things,” he said. “I don’t mind waiting. I’d say patience is something that I’ve learned over the years.”

The media has rarely been able to say the same.

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