By Lawrence Donegan | WGC-Cadillac Championship
Number one in the world of golf and numero uno in the art of the disarming apology, Rory McIlroy once again swiped triumph from the mucky grip of inglorious ridicule on the eve of the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami.
Last Friday he was the spoiled brat who wouldn’t listen to the wise counsel of his playing partner Ernie Els who suggested that, all things considered, it might not be the very best idea to stomp off in a huff midway through the second round of the Honda Classic after hitting his ball in the water for the third time in nine holes.
Today he was the humble son of Northern Ireland who had looked in the mirror and seen the error of his ways. His new friends at Nike didn’t need to run him up a sackcloth-and-ashes polo shirt for his press conference appearance (though it would have looked better than the ghastly yellow item he did show up wearing) because, guess what, nothing is more powerful than words.
“I quit. I shouldn’t have done it. It was a mistake It was a bad example to the kids who were watching and want to emulate what I do. I won’t do it again,’’ McIlroy said.
Bullseye. There, in an edited highlights nutshell, is the essence of what it takes to get a tarnished image back on track. McIlroy is an intuitive master at this kind of thing. Like the ability to swing a golf club it is his natural gift, which makes it all the more hilarious that Tiger Woods ( a 36-handicapper when it comes to PR) saw fit to offer some advice to the man who has supplanted him as golf’s biggest star.
“Think a little bit more before you say something or do something,’’ was the suggestion of old Grandmaster Grump, whose career-long obfuscation in front of the cameras cost him dearly when he was looking for friends in the crazy winter of 2009.
Rory says sorry and ‘no thanks, Tiger’
McIlroy’s apology will get all the friendly headlines but he should also be commended for telling Mr Woods where to shove it, though in so many words. “I feel like I have always been open and honest. I don’t want it to be a strained relationship between me and the Press.”
Translated – thanks, but no thanks Tiger, although the new world No1 does appear to have adapted one particularly irritating verbal tic from the old No1, at one point uttering Woods’ infamous mantra: “It is what it is.”
At least McIlroy had the decency to look embarrassed after the words escaped his mouth. Another plus point in the image rehabilitation stakes.
Yet beyond all the froth and nonsense surrounding the Northern Irishman over the last week the only thing that truly matters is his golf. If he continues to hit the ball sideways then the state of his relationship with the press won’t matter one iota.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter: why is he playing so badly? “It’s not the equipment, it’s the swing,’’ he insisted.
Really? Let’s employ a bit of deductive reasoning. Last year Rory McIlroy won five times, including a major championship, and finished his season with five straight birdies to triumph in Dubai. He then takes a few weeks off, comes back in Abu Dhabi for his first appearance of 2013 and can’t find the fairway with a map and compass. What happened? What had changed?
Could it be the swing that served him so brilliantly over an extended period of 2012 deteriorated so startlingly by the start of 2013? Possibly, although only in the sense that anything is possible. But why wander off to boundaries of credulity when there is a more plausible explanation?
So, what is McIlroy’s problem?
What changed in the golfing world of McIlroy between November 2012 and January 2013? He changed his equipment, from Titleist (which he has used since boyhood) to Nike (which backed up the truck).
Some players have made the switch with very little impact on their play but the history of the game is littered with pros who got themselves into the bother.
If you don’t believe that, believe this: A history of golf mistakes just like Rory’s…
Admittedly, it is a small sample size (only four and a half competitive rounds) but the weight of evidence accumulated in 2013 suggests McIlroy’s name can be added to this list.
Thankfully, most players overcome the difficulties that come with changing gear and McIlroy will too, although probably not this week. It is possible to transform a tarnished image in space of a press conference but it takes a lot longer to repair an out-of-sorts golf game.
He will back and he will hope to be back in time for the Masters. But if you are looking for a winner at Doral look elsewhere, to the sainted ranks of proven winners who are happy with their equipment and are content with their form.
Tiger Woods plays well in Miami and has already won this season. Same goes for Phil Mickelson. Both could win this week but if they do then they will have to beat Geoff Ogilvy (45/1), a former major champion who, on the evidence of a second-place finish at the Honda last week, is playing up to his pedigree.
Lawrence Donegan is the Guardian’s former golf correspondent. He is also author of the acclaimed book, Four Iron for the Soul, based on his experiences caddying for tour pro Ross Drummond. In the 1980s he was a bassist for the Bluebells and Lloyd Cole And The Commotions. Follow him on Twitter here.