Is ego Rory McIlroy's biggest rival?

Which way now? Rory McIlroy walks past a billboard depicting his silhouette in Abu Dhabi in January. Picture Stuart Adams www.golftourimages.comNewly-crowned world No 1 Tiger Woods was joking when he replied to Rory McIlroy’s congratulatory text and told him, as the youngster revealed in Texas yesterday, “to get my finger out of my ass and win this week.” At least, we think he was joking.

Winning the Shell Houston Open would catapult McIlroy right back to the top of the rankings once again and thrust him, apparently against his will, back into the harsh glare media spotlight just 10 days before the first round of the Masters.

Given McIlroy’s propensity for following mediocrity with stunning brilliance, you wouldn’t put it past the curly-haired Holywood genius to pull it off. However, despite the closing 65 at Doral that drew a line under his accidented start to the season, it might be a week too soon for such heroics.

Patently ill-prepared for the start of the season following an all conquering end to the 2012 campaign, the two-time major winner is playing catch up.

Despite what his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki has described as his almost obsessive love for the gym, the Ulsterman’s work ethic is as sporadic as that of most 23-year olds we’ve met. He’s no Vijay Singh, no Pádraig Harrington and certainly no Tiger Woods, which is probably a good thing in many ways.

He’s not Darren Clarke either, though being told by Woods to get his finger out puts him in the same league bromance-wise. Remember the note Woods left on Clarke’s locker when he lost 4 and 2 to the Dungannon man in the Accenture MatchPlay final at La Costa? “Enjoy it you fat f***.”

What appears certain is that McIlroy is not enjoying it too much right now. The attention he has received since he upped the ante by signing hat multi-million dollar deal with Nike has not helped. The burdens that come with being the anointed one - the expectations, the media intrusion, the constant criticism - have increased exponentially and he’s plainly struggling to deal with them.

Rory McIlroy in his first event as a Nike player in Abu Dhabi in January. Picture Stuart Adams www.golftourimages.comWhen he was a child he would practice day and night, dragged in unwillingly by his parents as he hit bunker shots in darkness in a freezing bunker at Holywood Golf Club, snot frozen to his cherubic face.

Finding a balance between that kid, the freewheeling tyro that’s won two majors by the astounding margin of eight shots, and the overwhelmed youngster who was forced to flee the golf course mid-round at the Honda Classic is a challenge right now, as he confessed in Humble on Tuesday morning.

Asked if there was a sense of relief that he does not have to carry the burden of being No 1, he could not lie.

“I guess at the minute, yeah, with me trying to get my game back to where I think it can be,” he told a news conference. “You know, it’s nice to just go — not just go about my business and no one cares, but you go about it and not be, I guess, the most talked about person in golf.  It’s a nice thing.”

He hit balls at a public course in Miami last Friday, wearing shorts and carrying a pencil bag with a Manchester United logo, just like any other 23-year old golf nut. It was almost a cry for a life more ordinary, for normality, for a few hours at least. An escape from the fuss.

Q.  When you go and play, hit balls as you did at the muni range, does that kind take you back to what golf, the essence of golf and why you started playing golf?

RORY MCILROY:  Yeah, exactly.  You go and you hit balls because you want to and you love the game, and yeah.  I wanted to go and practice and that was the closest place and it’s totally fine for me that I go and practice with everyone else.  It’s no big deal.

More like Phil Mickelson than Woods in terms of his work ethic, McIlroy was the subject of an interesting article by a Spencer Vickery, an English PGA professional with an MSc in Sports Psychology, on the website www.thesportinmind.com. (Thanks DMV for the heads up).

A taste of like at the top. Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods. Picture Stuart Adams www.golftourimages.comConcluding that he fully expects McIlroy “to be put back on the straight and narrow,” Vickery adds the proviso that “if things aren’t taken care of soon we could witness some turbulent times ahead for the young Northern Irishman.”

He’s referring to the dangers of ego and ‘Goal Achievement Theory’ …

“… which explains how a player’s motivational orientations can affect their performance especially under pressure. The two main components of this theory are that a player can be either dominantly ‘task’ or ‘ego’ orientated. Traits of a task orientated players are that they have a strong focus on learning, developing their game, enjoying their sports and doing their best, giving 100% effort in their performance and practice is what these players focus on in their pursuit of success.”

That could be Harrington…

“Players who are dominantly ego orientated see success as winning in style, having a high social status and social recognition for their achievements, being seen to win with relative ease, and pulling of the heroic shots to win a tournament….”

Anyone come to mind?

“Ego orientated players on the other hand will often be the players to choke when things aren’t going to plan, this is because the worry of what they look like, what others will think about them and say often kick in and the fear of failure grows until it becomes unbearable, in time this can lead to drop out from the sport all together or a radical behaviour of some sort.”

In conclusion, he reckons McIlroy could go either way, which says a lot about where he is right now and what next week’s humanitarian trip to Haiti could do for his psyche:

“McIlroy we could say that he clearly enjoys the status and fame that comes with his golfing success, he likes to put on a show and who could blame him at 23 years of age. I think it’s fair to say that McIlroy certainly has many of the characteristics of an ego orientated player but has managed to keep these at bay with a decent level of task orientation.

“The problem that I see gradually unfolding and which is very much supported by recent and past performances (i.e. Masters 2011) is that his ego side may becoming the dominant overriding factor in his game, for example what could be more of a boost to the ego of a young man like Rory than to be signed by Nike, one of the biggest brands in the world, however with this extra ego boost came poor performance after poor performance with the latest one being dropping out of a tournament mid round, this is a typical characteristic of somebody who is playing their sport with an ego orientated attitude.”

A smiling Rory McIlroy at the start of the season. Picture: Fran Caffrey/www.golffile.ie.Right now McIlroy is feeding off that closing 65 that gave him a top 10 finish in the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral.

“I saw a lot of good things there,” he said. “You know, it’s been going well in practice and obviously it’s a lot different out on the course but I definitely saw some good signs at Doral …”

Growing up he wanted to be like Tiger. Then, when his star was on the rise and Woods was mired in his post fire-hydrant slump, he said before the 2010 Ryder Cup that quite a few players would fancy their chances against the 14-time major winner.

Now?

“… looks like he’s playing really, really well and putting really, really well. So, yeah, great — he’s obviously won 3 times this year and back to the top of the world rankings and he just seems like he’s in a really good place on the course, off the course.  So, it’s good to see…

“It’s huge [for the game].  He’s been the man in golf for the last 15 years, I guess, and it’s great for golf to have him playing well and, you know, hopefully I can just try and keep up with him.”

McIlroy says he will learn from Woods’ travails and the way he never appears to give up during a round.

“Of course.  We’re not machines.  We’re humans.  We go through highs and lows.  It’s just sport and that’s golf.

“You’re going to have patches where you play great and have patches where you struggle a little bit.  I guess you just got to take the rough and the smooth and just try and treat those, I guess treat those times, sort of play and be patient and know that you’re working on right things…

“… I’ve always said he’s been one of the greatest fighters on a golf course, you know, if things aren’t going his way he’ll dig in and get whatever he can out of a round.  He just sticks in there.  That’s one of his biggest things.

A slightly more serious looking McIlroy in Texas.“He can repeat day-in, day-out that attitude and that, I guess single-mindedness or that drive or motivation, whatever you want to call it, I think that’s his most impressive aspect.”

McIlroy isn’t trying to play like anyone other than McIlroy right now - the McIlroy that dominated 2012.

“I guess at the minute, yeah, with me trying to get my game back to where I think it can be.  You know, it’s nice to just go — not just go about my business and no one cares, but you go about it and not be, I guess, the most talked about person in golf.  It’s a nice thing.”

He’ll get more of that in Haiti when he returns there next Monday and Tuesday on a field trip with UNICEF Ireland.

“I went in June, 2011, so it’s going to be a couple years.  It will be good, great to go back, I guess, to see the improvements that have been made and the improvements that still need to be made.”

He was still coming to terms with that 2011 Masters implosion when he visited the ravaged country two years ago and returned to win the US Open at Congressional.

“And the last time I went it was a very humbling place and it was a very eye-opening experience for me.”

Right now he’s just in Humble. A win would make his king of golf again but you believe him when he’s asked if he knows what he has to do this week to get back to No 1.

“No.  I don’t have a clue.”

The goal is to start swinging like a kid again. Ego be damned.