Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 7, 2013

Heavy Weight On Young Shoulders

They are invisible to the naked eye, shapeless and devoid of mass. Yet for all that they lack in substantiality, few things can so burden an athlete as the enormous weight of great expectations. The stories of our games are littered with tales of stars who staggered under the heavy load of presumptions and assumptions about what they would or should accomplish. While it is true that we fans will often allow unrealistic hopes to color the prospects we assign to our heroes, the heaviest expectations by far are those that athletes place on themselves. Just ask Rory McIlroy.

In 2012 McIlroy’s star was ascendant. As he rose to the top of the Official World Golf Rankings, he won five times on the PGA and European Tours. His victories included back to back wins last September at the Deutsche Bank and BMW Championships, two of the PGA Tour’s four FedEx Cup playoff events. One month earlier he won his second career major with a dominating performance at the PGA Championship. Winning more than $8 million on the PGA Tour and more than $7 million on the European Tour, he became just the second golfer to claim the money titles on both sides of the Atlantic in the same year. A year after becoming the youngest golfer to reach ten million euros in career earnings in Europe he became the youngest to reach $10 million in career earnings in the U.S.

In mid-January McIlroy confirmed golf’s worst-kept secret, that he was switching equipment from Titleist to Nike. The endorsement deal, estimated to be worth $20 million a year, was announced with an elaborate sound and laser light show in Abu Dhabi where McIlroy was preparing for his first appearance of the 2013 season at the European Tour’s HSBC Championship. Playing for the first time in competition with fourteen Nike clubs in his bag, he then went out and shot a pair of 75’s to miss the cut by four strokes.

As word of his pending change in equipment began to circulate over the winter, a handful of golf commentators warned of the inherent risk in the decision. While a weekend hacker would scarcely notice a difference between two high-end clubs, any pro will readily detect minute differences in the feel imparted or even the sound made when the club head strikes the ball. Many touring pros have needed significant time to adjust to new clubs. The missed cut in his first tournament with new blades caused winter’s faint whispers of doubt to escalate to audible murmurs.

McIlroy didn’t tee it up again for four weeks. When he finally did so, at the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona, he was the number one overall seed in the 64-man field. But he got no respect from 64th seed Shane Lowry, who promptly bounced McIlroy out of the tournament. Then last week the PGA Tour began its annual Florida swing with the Honda Classic. McIlroy’s remarkable 2012 season was launched at the Honda when he held off a hard charging Tiger Woods in the final round to win by two strokes. But this year it was an entirely different story. After opening with an even par 70, McIlroy began his second round on the back nine. After a series of wayward shots and missed putts, he came to the 18th hole already seven over par, and with virtually no chance of making the cut. When his second shot on the par-5 found a water hazard, McIlroy shook hands with his playing partners and walked off the course.

On his way to the parking lot McIlroy told reporters that he was “not in a good place mentally;” then an hour later he released a statement blaming his departure on a painful wisdom tooth. The latter seemed improbable since he had tweeted a picture of a family dinner the night before, and had been photographed eating a sandwich on the course shortly before calling it quits. Both the golf media and plenty of fans have come down hard on the 23-year old in the days since his sudden withdrawal, even as the questions about his equipment switch have risen to a dull roar.

Yet for all of the criticism and smug suggestions that Nike clubs and balls will lead to McIlroy’s ruin, golf fans would do well to maintain some perspective. To his everlasting credit and despite his enormous success at such a young age, McIlroy remains remarkably self-effacing and open in interviews. On Wednesday in his first public appearance since the debacle at the Honda, he readily admitted his poor judgment, saying “I realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t the right thing to do. No matter how bad I was playing, I should have stayed out there.” He later added “I learned that when the going gets tough, I’ve got to stick in there a bit more and I’ve got to grind it out. There’s no excuse for quitting, and it doesn’t set a good example for the kids watching me, trying to emulate what I do. It wasn’t good for a whole lot of reasons, for the tournament, the people coming out watching me. I feel like I let a lot of people down with what I did last week and, you know, for that I am very sorry.”

McIlroy also acknowledged that he has indeed saddled himself with large expectations, although he insists their source is not the endorsement deal with Nike but rather a desire to match his achievements of 2012 in this new golf season. “Just go out and have fun. It’s not life or death out there. It’s only a game. I had sort of forgotten that this year,” he said.

Of course just like a 16 handicapper playing in a weekend foursome, McIlroy is likely to have more fun if he’s having a good day. That in turn is more likely to happen if he’s competing more. Between the missed cut in the Mideast, the early departure from the Match Play and the meltdown at the Honda, McIlroy began play on Thursday at the WGC Cadillac Championship having played barely more than four competitive rounds so far this year. The good news is that as a limited-field event the Cadillac doesn’t have a cut, so he’s guaranteed four rounds of golf no matter what he shoots.

Finally, the naysayers should keep in mind that McIlroy has always been a streaky golfer. By the time his huge 2012 season ended it was easy to forget that in the middle of the year he missed three cuts in a row, and four in five weeks. That was the last time assorted pundits worked themselves into a lather speculating on what was wrong with Rory. Since there were no new clubs to blame the favorite culprit then was his high-profile relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. That went on right up until he won the PGA Championship by eight shots.

Because he so often makes the game look so easy we fans tend to forget that in fact it’s really hard. Because he’s so successful we fans tend to forget that he’s only 23, and sometimes he’s probably going to act like a 23-year old. Because we expect so much of him we fans tend to forget that the heaviest weight comes from the expectations he places on himself. At the moment it’s fashionable to kick McIlroy, and warn of his doom. But if asked to pick an athlete who will ultimately shoulder the weight of great expectations and thrive, I’ll gladly put my money on the kid from County Down.

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