Rory McIlroy might have put a band aid on the wounds of 2013 with a win in the Australian Open but even if he makes it back to back victories in Tiger Woods’ season-ending World Challenge this week he knows there are fundamental problems that need to be addressed.
Forgetting for a minute any minor issues with his swing or the repercussions of his on-going legal war with his former agents, the 24-year old admits that he’s emotionally struggling to separate himself from his trials and tribulations on the golf course.
“I’ve learned and I've said this all along, I'm very hard on myself,” he said of the lessons learned this season. “I feel like I'm emotionally connected to my golf game in terms of, if I play bad, I'll be in a bad mood. If I play well, I'll be in a good mood. Sometimes I feel like I need to differentiate that.
“The way I play golf shouldn't determine who I am as a person. That's sort of been the case sometimes this year. I've sort of gotten really hard on myself if I haven't played well, and that's sort of carried through not just in my golf game, it's just how I am, my demeanor and everything. So that's something I feel like I've gotten better at and something I need to continue to get better at.”
People mature at different speeds and while McIlroy has always been a prodigy from a golfing point of view, he’s struggled at times to handle adversity.
His lack of patience with himself is frequently echoed in his over-sensitivity to what he perceives to be unfair criticism. And while he has tried to isolate himself from the noise that surrounds every move made by a top player, he still allows himself to be distracted by the chatter.
“I guess it's hard not to listen to it,” he said at Sherwood Country Club last night. “But you have to try to block it out and not listen to it. I've said all along, if you feel like you're on the right track and working on the right things and you're doing the right things to get better, then that's basically you believe in that and believing in yourself and you are doing the right things and you will come back.
“So, yeah, it's the first year I've really had that much criticism and scrutiny. I feel like I've learned to deal with it much better.”
Despite his immense wealth and the pressures on his shoulders, McIlroy has tried to remain as accessible as he was when he first came out on tour. And yet things have been so fraught in his world this season that he was unable to attend any requests for one-on-one interviews. There are too many loose ends to be tied up with his former management company and too many questions unanswered to be able to give any kind of frank and honest interview.
Asked if he could remain as accessible and approachable as he once was and still perform, he said yes but really meant no.
“I still feel like I'm open and I'm accessible and I answer questions honestly. But does that mean that I make myself just as accessible? Probably not. The demands on our time are quite tough. We've got a lot of things to do in tournament weeks, and sometimes you can't do everything, and I think people understand that. But, yeah, I still try to be the same person.”
Saying “no” is now part of McIlroy’s world to the same extent as it is a part of Tiger’s. A quick look at his twitter output - and his reaction to is twitter replies - confirms that he no longer wants to hand out free ammunition or unwittingly put himself in the firing line.
“Not as much as I used to, if I'm honest,” he said of his twitter output. “It's funny, in terms of the outside public, what I feel like I've learned this year is they think that your good is better than what it is, and I think they think your bad is worse than what it is. When you do well, you get hyped up so much, and when you do badly they think it's the worst thing ever. So there is no real balance in it.
“So there is no point in getting carried away with the hype, and no point in getting carried away with the criticism either. So I don't look at the comments that much, if I'm honest. I'll look at my timeline and people that I follow. But in terms of what fans and public are saying, I try not to look into it too much.”
For McIlroy, it all comes down to misconceptions - of his game, his psyche, of what it means to be a public figure.
“I think it's people not understanding what it's like to be in our shoes or what it's like to live the life that we live or to have the careers that we have… I think it's just people don't quite understand unless they walk in your shoes.”
McIlroy touched on the mental stresses faced the the modern sports star when asked in Australia last week about England cricketer Jonathan Trott’s withdrawal from the Ashes tour in Australia following the First Test defeat.
The past year has clearly taken its toll on him mentally and while his game has come around beautifully as evidenced by his victory in the Australian Open, he’s not wishing the Masters was tomorrow.
“No, I need a break,” he said. “I'm happy this is the last event of the year. It will be nice to have a few weeks off. As I said, this last part of the season was all about trying to build momentum going into 2014. I feel like for the most part I've done that. Couple of good finishes in Asia. I got a win in Australia. I'd love to get myself in the mix this week and finish the season off on a really high note and go into the offseason and into 2014 in a really positive frame of mind. So, I’m not that unhappy that there's a break, but I'm just happy that my game is where I want it to be, and that's important.”
Advised by Padraig Harrington and Paul McGinley that he might reduce his frustration levels by simply accepting that he’s a streaky player, McIlroy met them halfway when he admitted that he’s learning that he doesn’t always have to play perfect golf to be happy.
“It doesn't always have to be pretty,” he admitted. “I feel like for me to be happy I need to play sort of pretty golf. I need to hit nice shots. You know, there are so many different ways to play this game.
“The thing I need to remember is it doesn't have to be pretty all the time. You can scrap it around and shoot your 69, and think I've gotten all I can out of that round. Let's go practice and try to hit it better tomorrow. That is something I need to do a little bit more of. Need to play the ugly golf better and manage my game better so when I'm not playing that well, I can still shoot around par or a couple under.”
Learning to managed himself better is the big challenge for McIlroy in 2014 but he believes that he can make that task easier by getting his game to a level where he becomes less high maintenance in the mental department.
Asked whether evolving his golf swing and the way he plays the game was a bigger goal than learning how to deal with being Rory McIlroy, he said: “I think it's a little bit of both. I think most important is the first thing you talked about. The golf swing, evolving my game. Because when your game is in good shape, everything else takes care of itself.
“When the game's in good shape, you don't get the criticism because you're winning trophies and you're up there. The game is the most important thing. Evolving your game and making your game as good as it can be. If you can do that, everything else is easy.”
Woods believes McIlroy has dealt pretty well with his ups and downs this year and got his just reward at Royal Sydney.
“Well, I think it was great to see Rory win a tournament,” he said. “He's been working very hard on trying to make some changes in his game. Obviously, we all know about the equipment change, but he's made some adjustments in his golf swing as well.
“It's good to see him win, especially, given how it all unfolded. He has to be probably the hottest player out here right now, and Adam Scott in his home country trying to win the Triple Crown, so that was a pretty good win for him.
“As far as battling a slump, that's just part of playing golf. You play golf long enough, you're going to go through it. Try and get out of it as fast as you can. But we're always going to dip into those periods where we don't play well, don't hit the ball well, don't putt well, things just don't go the right way. You get between numbers on every hole. You don't get the right number. Hit the wrong wind, get a couple gusts. Next thing you know a round that should be in the 60s is now 73 or 74 and you're missing a cut. And it's like I didn't really play that bad.
“Then if you make a few changes and if you ever, God forbid, you get injured along the way, that adds to it. Playing through those periods is just part of playing golf. I've certainly had my times where I haven't played well, and certainly I've had to battle my way through it, and you have to stick to it.”
McIlroy will kick off the Northwestern Mutal World Challenge alongside his former stablemate Graeme McDowell today.
As defending champion, McDowell is going for his third win at Sherwood in the past five years hoping to put a gloss on an up and down season.
Brilliant for the first six months - he won three times in that period - he played poorly in the majors and failed to make the Tour Championship during the FedEx Cup playoffs.
He knows the competition is getting stiffer all the time and hopes to come out all guns blazing in 2014 in search of more victories and a potential second major win.
Addressing the strength in depth in golf right now, he said: “I kind of sat down in October or November of last year and set myself a World Rankings total points that I wanted to try to aspire towards to try to get me towards that No. 5 in the world target. I've got to say I got pretty close to that target that I set myself to try and achieve, but I wasn't really factoring in how many great players around me were going to have incredible seasons. So making an impact in that top 10 in the world has been very difficult to do this year because you just get so many guys playing incredibly well.”
Reflecting on Henrik Stenson’s wins in the Race to Dubai and the FedEx Cup, Adam Scott’s Masters win or those five victories for Woods, he added: “Dufner won his first major championship, guys like Dustin popping back up, playing phenomenal. Ian Poulter, the way he's played the last five or six weeks, just a lot of really quality players in the world. I think it's just great for the game, really. Obviously, Tiger Woods drives this great game. We're all very lucky to be playing these days. But he's got a lot of extremely talented competition.
“Great to see Phil getting the job done at the Open championship was probably, from a neutral point of view, one of the highlights of the year. Adam Scott is just a quality player. Great to see him playing the way he has this year. It's been an inconsistent year for me. Certainly a year that I feel I'm going to learn a huge amount from.
“I’ve taken a lot of energy into this offseason and I’m pretty motivated to have a very constructive offseason and come back stronger next year. But there’s some serious competition out there. I think that the bar continues to raise, which is great for the game.”
Woods hasn’t won a major since 2008 but despite the fact that he believes the playing field has been levelled by equipment improvements, he’s still as mentally prepared as ever to add to his haul.
"It's still the same," the world No 1 said of his ambitions in the game. "And that's to just win whatever tournament I play in. The goals are still the same, keep improving. I feel like I've improved this year more than I did over the previous year."
"I certainly wish I could have played a little better in major championships. I was there at the Masters and was there at the British (Open) certainly with a chance, but just didn't get it done. The other two I just didn't play well. But winning The Players Championship and then obviously four other events, I think it's a pretty good year."
Set to turn 38 at the end of this month, he admits he is not as physically able as he once was. But as far as his mental game goes, he believes he’s as capable as ever though the improvements in technology mean that less talented players are making it harder to win.
"I've certainly tried to curb my workout regime over the years. … I'm not 22. I'm about ready to turn 38, so things are different and you have to make those adjustments. You know, that is just a reality.
“[The competition] I think it's deeper now than it ever has been. There is more young talent. It's more difficult to win events now, and it's only going to stay that way. … And equipment certainly narrowed the gap quite a bit from the elite ball strikers. … It's a totally different game. Guys have evolved, and I think they have become much more aggressive now than they ever used to be because of equipment."