Mental game key as McIlroy and McDowell seek missing links
Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy

There's a fine line between scar tissue and some temporary emotional baggage.

Just ask Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, who might be ten years apart in terms of age but now seem closer than ever when it comes to the mental challenges they face this summer.

On paper at least, McDowell is in a different place to his former stablemate, as he admitted ahead of his 17th appearance in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at a pristine Ballyliffin yesterday.

The former world number four is now 175th in the world and as he chases his first win since late 2015, he admits that there's a name for the X-factor that separates those who qualify automatically for events like The Open and Ryder Cup and those who have to show their kids DVDs of their past heroics.

"I'm struggling with confidence," McDowell said with admirable candour yesterday. "It's that little bit of scar tissue that builds up over three or four years of not playing well. 

"You see these guys that are the best players in the world on top form, they just seem to cruise.

"You know, you play your best golf when you don't care; when you practise really hard and really intensely and you get on the golf course and let it go and you play carefree. 

"It's hard to play carefree when you've had three or four years of not playing well. You need it too badly and you want it too badly, and it matters too much to you and that takes the carefreeness away.

"So it's being able to tap into that carefree nature, even though in the back of your mind, you need this. That's kind of the X-factor for me a little bit and it's hard. It's hard to do that. 

"I feel like I'm one result away from having a lot of great results, but I just can't get that one result under the belt, you know. That's probably the only way I can describe it to you."

McDowell dreams of having his kids run out on the 72nd green for that celebratory hug and while McIlroy does not yet have children poised to jump into his arms, he is also pining for the carefree strut of old when the wins came as easily as one of his 350-yard drives.

Many wonder when we will see him bounce his way up a fairway to a fifth major win, like the 22-year-old tyro who won the 2011 US Open by eight shots or as a 25-year old world number who took his major tally to four in the 2014 PGA Championshp at Valhalla.

Like McDowell, he still says that desire is not the issue. But while the Portrush man is struggling to redress a confidence deficit, McIlroy sounds like a man more fearful of losing what he already has than a world beater fearlessly chasing the next frontier.

"I think you always have to be willing to fail in order to succeed," McIlroy said yesterday when he broke from his usual script and addressed the importance of the mental game. 

"I think the way I've approached the game at times this year... I've been sort of too careful; I haven't been willing to hit the right shot or hit driver when I need to be aggressive. 

"I think just being a little more carefree.  That sounds bad.  I don't want to be carefree but I think that's the way I play my best golf and if I can get back to that freewheeling, carefree approach, that will do me a world of good."

He re-phrased that later, admitting that he has to stop trying to be "too perfect."

"Get out of your own way, I guess," he said

He added: "I think as you get older, your natural instinct to become a little more careful.  Like you take way more risks when you're a teenager than you do in your 20s than you would do in your 30s and it's only natural to be that way, not just in golf but in life in general.  I just need to get back to playing the game like I was a teenager." 

While he is now in his eleventh season as a professional, McIlroy has never appeared to place much importance on the mental game, publicly at least.

But he now admits that as the game becomes more challenging, it's the area he must improve as competition hots up.

"I think that could make the world of difference," he said.  "Because I know, okay, maybe I can become a little more consistent in some areas, but it's not as if I lack the ability to play certain shots. 

"I feel like I've got every shot that I will ever need.  It's just about maybe doing it on a more consistent basis, but I feel the way to be able to do that on a more consistent basis is to be able to put your mind in a frame where it allows to you do that."

Rather than reaching out to a mental guru, he said: "I think it's more just looking within yourself and trying to figure out what you need to do..."

Realising he had said more than he might have wished, he added playfully: "Gone very deep there for a while, sorry."

Like McDowell (39 later this month), he knows that once that golden thread of carefree confidence is broken, catching it again can seem like an impossible task.

"You definitely become more reflective later in years," McDowell mused. "Like why am I out here? Do I want to keep doing this? Do I want to hole 6-footers the next ten years? 

"Hopefully I'll hole a few of them. It's a hard sport, especially when it's not going well."

G-Mac swallows his pride

Graeme McDowell confessed that he had to swallow his pride to enter Tuesday's ill-fated Final Qualifying event for The Open.

The Portrush man never got to tee it up as his clubs went missing in transit but he admitted that it wasn't easy to decide to enter the St Annes Old Links test in the first place.

He said: "It's tough to man up and play in something like that. But I've always been good at preparing for an event like that and going in as one of the best-prepared players. 

"Looking at the field, I thought if I played in any way decent, I had a great chance.

"It's a shot to the ego when you've got to show up at a regional qualifier for The Open but you've got to leave your ego at the door and say, 'Right, it's another opportunity, let's take care of business.'

“Unfortunately that didn't happen."