McIlroy under the microscope

Rory McIlroy speaks to the press in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. Picture: Fran Caffrey/www.golffile.ieRory McIlroy might already have his own baseball bobblehead but he is quickly discovering something that Tiger Woods learned a long-time ago about a great American tradition - three strikes and you’re out.

Not even Woods had to deal with the 24-hour a day, instant news scrutiny of the social media age that McIlroy now faces.

After narrowly escaping disqualification in the Masters for kicking the sand in 2010 and then fleeing when things were going poorly in Florida on Friday, the US media is likely to give him one more chance before the knives well and truly come out.

Telling a trio of reporters, including this one, that he had no physical issues and was simply “in a bad place mentally” before later claiming that it was a toothache that caused his shock withdrawal was a media management nightmare for McIlroy and his handlers.

Woods calls McIlroy a friend but while he would not confirm that he has had a “welcome to my world” conversation with his Nike stablemate, he advised McIlroy to use caution and choose his words more carefully in future when asked about the Holywood star’s latest drama.

“He’s just got to be more… just got to think about it a little bit more before you say something or do something,” Woods said, pausing mid-sentence to choose his words as carefully as possible.

“It can get out of hand, especially when you get into social media and start tweeting and all those different things that can go wrong.”

The forensic dissection of McIlroy’s second round antics dominated Friday night’s golf coverage with a host of talking heads from WGC-Accenture Match Play champion Matt Kuchar, four-time major winner Ernie Els and former US PGA champion Mark Brooks all weighing in with their theories.

No-one has more credit with the US golf media, starved for years by Woods, than boy wonder McIlroy.

His accessibility, his candid interviews and his boyish qualities, have made him their darling. But that can all change quickly after a walk-off that has disappointed many.

Woods made so many enemies over the years that his fall from grace was manna from heaven for his detractors and the rest was a merciless slaughter.

But the 14-time major winner admits that Rory faces a whole new ball game in the social media age.

“I’ve been through it for a long time,” Woods said of the incessant analysis and criticism. “But also this is a slightly different era, as well. It’s even faster than what it was when I came out. Things are instantaneous around the world. We were still on fax machines, things were a little bit slower.”

Asked if he felt like lashing out at time, Woods chose his words carefully, firing a shot across the bows of the media posse: “Most of the people that are commentating or analysing don’t understand the game of golf, so I didn’t have a problem with it. … They don’t see the range sessions and they don’t see the practice at home.  Plus, they generally don’t understand the game, especially at this level.”

Els was initially disappointed that McIlroy took the high road by high-tailing it out of the Honda in a BMW.

Having claimed at his presentation as a brand ambassador for high-end headphone makers Bose on Tuesday that he’s ready to brush off the criticism as part of package that comes with his status as the game’s number one player, McIlroy must now live by his words.

Whether he can do that and avoid falling into his old defensive ways, remains to be seen.

“Hopefully Rory doesn’t read too much into the bit of criticism that comes his way because it is par for the course,” Els said. “They are always going to criticise the number one player in the world whenever he does something.”

Several respected American commentators took exception to McIlroy’s behaviour with Sports Illustrated’s Michael Bamberger one of the more eloquent in his lament for the McIlroy who took his lumps at Augusta following the back nine meltdown that cost him the 2011 Masters.

For all his boyish charm, hailing McIlroy the new golfing messiah in place of the flawed Woods is a major strategic mistake in Bamberger’s opinion.

“The evening began with a video montage of McIlroy, various shots of the young golfer stamped with the word TRUE.,” he wrote of the Bose launch. “Rory is true to his game, to his fans, to his parents, to his charities. Unspoken, of course, is that he is true to his sponsors.

A hologram depicting Rory McIlroy at the launch of his Nike deal. Picture: Fran Caffrey/www.golffile.ie“What a ridiculous way to promote Rory McIlroy or anybody else for that matter. Did these people not learn anything from the life and times of Tiger Woods? Nobody should be saddled with such unrealistic expectations.”

Brooks, a journeyman with a major, gave his 10 cents worth on the Golf Channel, which is generally loathe to crticise the stars that are their meal tickets.

“I’m a little disappointed in him, “Brooks said. “World No 1 or not he should have faced the music, taken his lumps and he’d have been better off for it.”

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, a former tour player, chimed in: “He’s opened himself up to a crescendo of speculation. He didn’t talk about a tooth issue before this week, during this week or even mention it to Ernie Els and Mark Wilson during his round or in the parking lot when he had a chance. He only brought it up an hour later in a statement and that’s going to pose question marks and speculation. What isn’t a question mark is how different he is this year to last year.”

And so the conversation inevitably turns to his estimated €190m move to Nike and the fact that he went second, second, win in Abu Dhabi, Tucson and the Honda Classic last year to missed cut, first round defeat and withdrawal in the same events this year.

Kuchar, for one, can’t understand why McIlroy changed everything at once - ball, irons, woods and putter - when Woods made those changes gradually.

“If you make changes, you make them one step at a time,” Kuchar said. “To jump full on into bal and equipment was a big jump. But he’s such a good player and so talented, I don’t think anybody is really worried about him.”

The perception that he has been somehow pressured into making the Nike move by his management and his own ego will gather pace unless results improve soon.

Graeme McDowell has no doubt that McIlroy has bought into the Nike ethos because he wants to grow his “brand” and become “a sporting idol as opposed to just a phenomenal golfer.”

As Woods discovered, such high expectations only lead to disappointment in the age when the spin doctors can only do so much to keep voracious media and social media worlds at bay. When you are portrayed as the paradigm of virtue, slip ups are even more costly.

A colleague loves to tell the story of an Irish horse racing reporter who was once asked why so many of his fancies failed to win.

“Horses are only human, son,” came the hilarious reply.

McIlroy might be a thoroughbred, but as he proved in Florida, he’s all too human.