Rory opens himself up to public that's looking away
If it was any comfort to Rory McIlroy, he was at least spared the scrutiny of the watching golf world as he plodded his way around Muirfield on Friday.
For by then he'd all but disappeared from our television screens. He was out of contention and the broadcasters had dropped him like he was a journeyman nobody. His first-round 79 on Thursday had dominated the headlines, not least because of his confessional interviews that evening.
In a startling turn of events, the assembled media had become a sort of ad hoc psychotherapist as McIlroy's press conference turned into a public therapy session. "I feel like I'm walking around out there and I'm unconscious," he said. "I just need to try to think more. I'm trying to concentrate. It's nothing to do with technique. It's all mental. It's just so brain-dead. Seriously, I feel like I've been like that for the last couple of months. I'm trying to get out of it. I just don't quite know why."
Or, it seems, how. But at least he didn't keep it bottled up inside. This sort of openness is part of his charm. Officially the world's second best golfer, he projects a persona that is poles apart from that of Tiger Woods, the world's best. Woods does invincibility, McIlroy does vulnerability.
So when he walked to the first tee on Friday it was impossible not to feel a few pangs of sympathy: this was surely the last place he wanted to be after his wretched round the day before, and the subsequent media barrage.
"Miracles are required," said the BBC's Andrew Cotter as McIlroy tried a few practise swings, "but he is capable of them". Cotter was clutching at straws and McIlroy was soon in the hay: his tee shot at the first landed in thick rough. Another day of toil and trouble lay ahead.
"It's gotta be doubly difficult for him," remarked Curtis Strange, the former American professional, "because he reads about his problems every day in the paper." "And he's such a sweet, nice guy as well," replied his co-commentator Ken Brown. "It sort of affects him a bit more." "He is," Strange agreed. "I had dinner with him at the US Open and he was – he was wonderful."
The notion that 'nice guys finish last' is a dumb macho platitude. McIlroy is a living reproach to that cliché. Only those few celebrities in the entertainment and sports industries who've achieved similar levels of success can truly understand how it might warp someone's nature. The money and fame and power can erase all boundaries. The obligations and responsibilities that keep most people anchored become optional. He or she can more or less do as they please. Woods, for all his ironclad discipline on the golf course, led a maniacal private life for many years.
So, almost everyone venturing an opinion on McIlroy's current problems is shooting in the dark. By his own admission the issue is psychological. But that's as far as he apparently can explain it either. We should at least acknowledge that he has to navigate, on a daily basis, an environment that is entirely abnormal to the rest of us. It is possible that, at 24, he is struggling to cope with it. Or that it has thrown up a whole new set of problems that are utterly unrelated to his natural ability with a golf ball.
Many of golf's pundits are confining their speculation to his issues with the game itself. Specifically his struggles with the new Nike equipment which he has been paid a fortune to use. If it's as simple as that, it would be a relief.
McIlroy mentioned on Thursday evening that he might seek some guidance from Dr Bob Rotella, the distinguished sports psychologist who has worked with dozens of Major winners. Then he had a change of heart.
But by then the mind guru had also been roped into the conversation. "I believe (Rory) is wondering, 'Is it me or is it the equipment?' When he feels he has conquered this, I'm confident he will return to being 'unconscious' with his game."
But Rotella also hinted at more long-term dangers for those blessed with precocious talent. "Rory is like Tiger, in that he has won at a very early age, very consistently – that's a lot of success in his life. But in every sport, you see guys who get to a certain level and then they fall off the planet."
In other words, for whatever reason, they lose the all-consuming drive that got them there in the first place.
After the fourth hole on Friday, McIlroy was barely on our screens for the rest of the day. The bogeys and double bogeys were committed in private. And afterwards he manfully faced the media again before departing the scene.
There had been a shot of him wading through deep rough on the 12th. "Rory, well, his woes continue, sadly," intoned Peter Alliss. A BBC graphic then showed McIlroy had made $12.3m in prize money since January 2012, and Woods just a shade less. "They've earned quite a bit, these two lads," said Alliss, with a dab of vinegar, "so we don't need to really feel desperately sorry for them."
"And that's (not counting) his $10m-a-year Nike contract," replied Brown. "Don't know how long that lasts," retorted Alliss, "if you're not doing very well."