Thursday 20 June 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Two members of Rory McIlroy's management team verbally lacerated me. It was unprovoked and unsettling'

Rory gets away with a lot because of how well-liked he is, writes Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy. Photo: AP
Rory McIlroy. Photo: AP

Dermot Gilleece

Two senior members of Rory McIlroy's management team verbally lacerated me during the US Masters last month. Lasting several minutes, it was totally unprovoked and seriously unsettling.

Their focus was the adverse publicity which McIlroy had received in sections of the Irish media from his decision not to play in this year's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch in July. I later concluded that perhaps my senior status among this country's golf scribes gave them the notion I might bring my errant, younger colleagues into line, as it were.

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Either way, it was a misplaced, misguided attack to which my response was that I could be answerable only for material I myself had written.

The unhappy episode was brought back into focus for me by McIlroy's announcement that he has decided to represent Ireland in the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan. Notable in the newspaper reaction was Derek Lawrenson's in the Irish Daily Mail, who originally broke the story in 2011 that the player felt "more British than Irish". Later McIlroy talked of exasperation with golf in the Olympics.

Recalling the worldwide controversy prompted by these remarks, it was hardly surprising that Lawrenson should refer to last week's disclosure as an "astonishing U-turn". But isn't one of the world's leading sportsmen entitled to change his mind? Of course he is, except that the volte-face has become an unfortunately familiar part of McIlroy's public image.

Had his intended absence from Lahinch been handled properly, from a PR standpoint, when it first became a possibility last November, I'm sure the reaction here would have been far more understanding, given the player's enormous contribution to the event since he became its host in 2015.

Instead, as part of a private spat with the European Tour chief executive, Keith Pelley, which the general public could have no way of understanding, we had the Tour being described disparagingly as "a stepping stone". As it happens, oil has since been poured on those particular waters.

Now comes the 2020 Olympics and his decision to represent Ireland, which is a tremendous boost to golf in this country.

In terms of his public image, McIlroy gets away with a lot, largely because of how well-liked he is. He simply happens to be a very nice man, by any standards. But a stubborn streak rendering him resistant to advice has led to confusion and disappointment for many of his fans.

Even the greatest have been guilty of serious misjudgements in their dealings with the media. Back in July 1994, two years before the emergence of Tiger Woods as a phenomenally successful tournament player, Jack Nicklaus infamously told a reporter from the Vancouver Province that the lack of black golfers in America was not down to racism.

The Bear claimed that black players "have different muscles that react in different ways". He further insisted that had he declined to play in clubs that practised discrimination back in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, it would have had no impact on minorities finding their way into the game.

Like most professional golfers, Nicklaus led a sheltered life and clearly lacked guidance on issues outside his own sphere of activity. So he formed views that had no sound basis in fact. The same can be said of McIlroy, who is frequently guilty of speaking with his brain in neutral.

In these days of social media, people of his stature, not unlike movie stars, are going to be targeted if they fail to conform to their perceived public image. They need to seek and accept advice - which is where a strong management team comes in.

McIlroy's status as the highest-earning sportsman in these islands would suggest he is being extremely well guided from a financial standpoint. His PR set-up, however, is urgently in need of an overhaul.

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