News & Opinion

McIlroy needs to start playing with an attitude

Sure, he recently won his 18th PGA Tour title, but it’s been 5½ years since his last major victory, so maybe it's time to take a competitive cue from his boyhood idol, Tiger Woods

Rory McIlroy is special. Exquisitely talented and abundantly confident, the freckle-faced phenom spent about 20 minutes in finishing school before embarking on what already is a hall-of-fame career. That bounce in McIlroy’s step befits a man who can make a remarkably difficult game look ridiculously easy. Four major titles by age 25. Eighteen PGA Tour victories, plus nine more overseas. Three Vardon trophies, two FedEx Cup crowns, somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million in total earnings….

Yes, that’s a very nice neighborhood. No wonder the kid is never grouchy.

Alfred Dunhill Links Championship 2019
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, an immense talent who had amassed 4 major titles by age 25, should summon the inner drive to take charge and become dominant again.

Only McIlroy could win a Players Championship with a dreadful short game – on a course that he basically despises, no less – or swipe a Player of the Year badge that had Brooks Koepka’s name engraved on it by midsummer. Of course, only McIlroy could return to his homeland for Northern Ireland’s first British Open in 68 years, hook his opening tee shot out of bounds and walk away with a quadruple-bogey 8, ending the party before anybody spiked the punch.

So many pieces to the puzzle, just two hands to make them fit. One might view McIlroy as an amalgam of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson: Tiger’s grip on greatness + Phil’s gift for goofing up = RoMac the Contrarian. He threw away a WGC in Mexico last spring with some lousy course management and was bludgeoned by Koepka at a WGC in Memphis, but it’s all in a year’s work for the game’s pre-eminent ball-striking machine (some assembly required).

It almost sounds ridiculous to suggest that 2020 is a make-or-break year for the 30-year-old McIlroy, but the truth has been known to arrive in some very peculiar packages. Last week’s victory in China occurred barely two weeks after Koepka dismissed any talk of a rivalry with the guy immediately behind him in the Official World Golf Ranking. That Koepka’s comments were issued with a derogatory slant hardly came as a shock. That McIlroy was so quick to respond, at least from a competitive standpoint, might qualify as a mild surprise.

Motivation also can come in odd shapes and sizes, as Koepka himself has proved over the past 18 months. It’s time for McIlroy to take it personally. Time to get miffed, feel slighted, take offense and take charge. Koepka insulted him, bringing up the whole zero-majors-in-5½-years thing. It stands as nothing short of reality, but it also stands to reason that McIlroy has brought some of that lack of respect upon himself.

“I don’t need to fill a void in my life by winning majors,” he told The Guardian earlier this year. “I don’t have that void. So does it scare me that I might not win another major? It doesn’t scare me at all, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to.”

It was a slightly revised version to comments McIlroy has made at various times in recent years, a public proclamation that might be perceived as a defense mechanism to rationalize squandered opportunities or half-decade droughts. Justifiable? Hey, we’re not judge and jury on the guy, but hunger is the primary source of competitive fire, and competitive fire can go a long way when you drive it 325 yards on command and park short irons to kick-in distance on a regular basis.

Expectations are outrageously high, but in McIlroy’s wonderful little world, that’s nothing new. Satisfaction and desire often meet under conflicting circumstances, and when you add several thousand gallons of pressure, the only thing a man really has is his inner drive and an unwavering appreciation for the reward. McIlroy might have had a poster of Woods on his bedroom wall when he was a kid, but it’s fair to say that he didn’t glean any of the cold-blooded characteristics that have made his hero perhaps the greatest player who ever lived.

From any angle, McIlroy’s inferences of indifference to repeatedly succeeding at the game’s highest level could very well be the thing holding him back. They certainly aren’t helping him. Koepka gets bent out of shape because he thinks that nobody appreciates what he has accomplished. Good for him. The way he goes about enunciating those feelings is the subject of immense scrutiny, most of it negative, but what works for Koepka isn’t as malevolent as it looks.

Tour pros dominate at every level until they reach the big leagues. With that developmental success comes an alpha-male mentality and a sense of imperturbable superiority. Then they start missing cuts and freaking out. Very, very few players possess the physical skills and work ethic to become great, and McIlroy is obviously one of those very, very few. Instead of “not losing sleep” over his inability to complete a career Grand Slam or improve on the pile of T-6s that have dotted his portfolio in recent years, maybe he should find that Woods poster and tape it to the ceiling, then lie awake at night staring at it.

Woods could find motivation in a breadcrumb. If there’s one thing Rory McIlroy has in overwhelming abundance, it’s bread.