Sport Golf

Friday 19 July 2019

Rory finding his range on great exploration

Freeing up some head space allows McIlroy to focus purely on golf — and Rio in green, writes Dermot Gilleece

Rory McIlroy: 'It's the first time in nine years I haven't been in a relationship. I'm rediscovering who I am, on my own'. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Rory McIlroy: 'It's the first time in nine years I haven't been in a relationship. I'm rediscovering who I am, on my own'. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Dermot Gilleece

From the warmth of the galleries as he approached the 18th green late on Friday afternoon, Rory McIlroy could sense their approval of his decision to represent Ireland in the 2016 Olympic Games. Interestingly, in the absence of a telephone for almost a month, he had no other way of knowing.

In the wake of his break-up with Caroline Wozniacki, announced at Wentworth on May 21, McIlroy decided that silence would be golden. So, there would be no mobile phone until after the US Open.

“I only got it back last night (Thursday) and it hasn’t been set up yet,” he said, stifling a smile. “Which means I haven’t had any messages about the Olympics situation. But the reaction of the galleries here, yesterday and today, was hugely positive. And I think people who may see it as a negative will still respect the decision. As I said from the start: play golf for Ireland is what I’ve always done.”

When we sat down together in the locker-room at Fota Island on Friday evening, there was no doubting his disappointment at having missed the cut, despite a birdie-birdie finish to a second round of 69. But he gradually eased the day’s happenings into the background and talked about significant changes in his life.

He acknowledged that “in some ways”, it had been an emotional week. Then came something of a cri du coeur when he added: “I’m finding myself. That’s probably how I would describe it. I’m having a lot more time on my own right now; a lot more time to think. With Holly and Caroline (his successive girlfriends) it’s sort of the first time in nine years I haven’t been in a relationship; that I’ve actually been on my own. So, I’ve got a lot more free time which has meant a lot more head space. I’m sort of rediscovering who I am, on my own.”

And how would be describe the experience? Carefully picking his words between pauses, he replied: “It’s strange, being in a situation I haven’t known for nine years. At the same time it’s . . . I’m trying to find the right word . . .” I suggest enriching. “Yeah.” And revealing? “Definitely revealing. I don’t want to seem selfish but I’m giving more attention to my own thoughts, my own needs.

“As a person, my natural instinct is to make sure that people are OK. I like to take care of people. But I’m finding that concentrating more on myself has been a good thing. I suppose I could sum it up by saying that it has been a great time for exploring myself.”

Then, employing a phrase attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates, he continued: “There’s this great quote, Know Thyself’. As a competitor in golf, I believe I know who I am. I’m never going to have the intensity of Nick Faldo, or Tiger. And as to where I am and what I want to be, the answer is that everything is centred around golf for me right now.

“I want to be the best at what I do. And I’ve got a great support system around me that lets me go and do that. That’s at the minute. There might be other things down the line, like family or business. But right now it’s purely golf.”

We then talked about the Olympic decision. “Though I had it worked out in my head, announcing it wasn’t really planned for this week,” he said. “Being Irish Open week, however, and with the World Cup in Brazil, it just seems like the right time.”

Would he prefer to have had the decision taken out of his hands, perhaps by the qualification process? “No,” came the firm reply. Then, once again picking his words with care, he went on: “It was a decision I wanted to take myself. It’s a big thing representing a country. You don’t want to be standing up there, say in 2016, getting an Olympic medal and hearing a national anthem playing and thinking, I wish it was the other one they’re playing’. You know what I mean.

“So, I thought through every aspect of it, right to that sort of detail. Had the decision been taken away from me, I could have ended up playing for somebody I didn’t really want to. So, while it wasn’t necessarily easy, I was most definitely happy that I was the one making the decision.”

As a keen fan of Ulster rugby, one could imagine him empathising with the idea of representing the island of Ireland. So I suggested that Willie John McBride and Rory Best, both captains of Ireland, had no cause to consider themselves any less British for having worn the green jersey. “No,” said McIlroy in agreement. Nor did Garth McGimpsey, who spoke about the pride he felt in wearing the green blazer. “Exactly,” he said. “Exactly. I agree 100 per cent.”

So, if he considered himself drawn more towards Britain, because of the nature of the north Down environment in which he was reared, would playing for Ireland in the Olympics affect such feelings? “No. No. Of course not,” he replied. “There’s a lot of the rugby players up North who class themselves as Northern Irish or British. But they still want to pull on the green jersey and play for Ireland. It’s the exact same for me.

“Where my golf was concerned, my main ambition growing up was to make the Irish six-man team, or the Home International team or whatever. And that’s exactly how it still is for me.”

Meanwhile, six tournaments in eight weeks have clearly taken their toll and he is looking forward to two weeks off. “The plan is to play a bit of links golf with Harry (Diamond) and the lads and get myself ready for the Scottish Open and the Open Championship,” he said. “The only time I played Hoylake was 11 years ago, when I lost to Graeme Benson in the first round of the British Boys.”

Accepting the frustration of a day on which six birdies and an eagle failed to get him into an Irish Open weekend for a second successive year, he suggested that on a scale of 1 to 10, his game was “about 6.5 to 7.0 right now.”

“There’s obviously a lot of good stuff in there but there’s also stuff that needs to be put right. By playing perhaps Royal Co Down, Portrush and Portstewart — I’ve never played Portstewart — I’ll work on the shots I’m going to need in the coming weeks.”

On a separate, personal level, did he intend to stick with the pledge of making himself less of a public figure than he was during his relationship with Miss Wozniacki, especially through social media? “Absolutely. It’s something I’ve learned. I don’t need every aspect of my life to be online, or out there.” Did Jack Nicklaus suggest this? “No, not really. I’ve simply begun to take note of how other people handle their lives. People like Phil Mickelson, for instance. He’s so personable. So likeable. So fair-minded. And with a great family life. I like the sort of image he projects. Who wouldn’t?

“Tiger’s a different character and a lot different to me in many ways. OK, he’s a little higher than I am, but in terms of his public image . . . I have no intention of cutting myself off. I love people knowing about me and my game, things they’re entitled to know about me as a public figure. But not personal stuff.”

On his way to the locker-room in a buggy, a few locals shouted, “Did you make it, Rory?” He might have rebuked them for not paying attention. Instead, there was a polite “afraid not”. Minutes earlier, he had talked about trying “till the very last shot”.

The evidence was there for the thousands who watched. And there will be no doubting the same commitment two years from now, when their Holywood star in green is battling for Ireland and an Olympic gold.

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