Sport Golf

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Rotella - 'I could give Rory peace of mind. That's all'

Mind gurus like Bob Rotella aren't yet part of the star's recovery plan.

Rotella: ‘I believe Rory could be put right quite quickly. Darren and I had a two-hour sit-down on Tuesday and at the end of it he said, ‘I’ve just had a huge weight lifted off my shoulders’
Rotella: ‘I believe Rory could be put right quite quickly. Darren and I had a two-hour sit-down on Tuesday and at the end of it he said, ‘I’ve just had a huge weight lifted off my shoulders’

Dermot Gilleece

Renowned American sports psychologist Bob Rotella would be only too happy to receive a call from Rory McIlroy, but the troubled 24-year-old has no plans to seek help in his current plight.

McIlroy remains determined to work his way out of a six-month slump which has seen him miss his first cut in six Open appearances.

And against the background of superb performances in the latter part of last season, it was remarkable to hear the player gain apparent solace from how he played the last 11 holes at Muirfield on Friday. McIlroy expressed the view afterwards that doing them "under par" was "encouraging." In fact, he covered them in level par with birdies at the ninth, 15th and 17th offset by bogeys at the eighth, 10th and 14th.

Rotella, who had a significant role in Pádraig Harrington's Major breakthrough at Carnoustie in 2007, went on to guide Darren Clarke to success at Royal St George's two years ago. And his impact on Clarke's Muirfield performance has been nothing short of dramatic, given a succession of four missed cuts in the run-up to the event.

"I'd love to have Rory to say he wanted to see me, but he hasn't," Rotella confirmed yesterday. "I'd find the time, I'll tell you that."

Then he added: "There would be no point in my making the approach. I don't walk up to people and tell them to come and see me. It doesn't work like that. They have to be ready to want to talk about this to me."

When I wondered what precisely he could offer McIlroy, he said with typical directness: "Peace of mind. That's all. He knows how to play. He's a great player and he'll be a great player again. But I'd have to find out what he has to say before I'd know what to offer him."

That seems most unlikely to happen, given McIlroy's reaction. Did he plan to contact Rotella? "It's something I haven't really thought about yet," he replied. Was it likely to happen? "Probably not." Then, significantly, he added: "I believe I can work it out for myself."

It is almost impossible for the average club golfer to fully comprehend the extent to which the mind can influence performance at the highest level. People will, quite reasonably, question how a great player with total control of the golf ball could begin spraying it in all directions. Didn't muscle memory and repeating swings offer protection against such lapses?

"I explained in my book that muscle memory doesn't exist," said Rotella. "If it did, the ball would keep going like a dart, even if your mind was in a bad place. It wouldn't matter where your head was. A clear mind is a beautiful thing but when there's even a little bit of a cloud in there, it's not the same.

"I'm saddened observing what Rory is going through. I can't help but feel that way because I like him as a person and I admire him as a golfer. But it's all part of the process. There will be some benefits for him from what he's going through at the moment and he will be fine again. But it will take time, despite the fact that there really is a very fine line in getting it back to being simple."

Can it be achieved without intervention? "Yes, but ideally you want to get out of it as quickly as possible. You could do it like Ben Hogan and take 25 years to figure it out, or you could bypass that painful process by learning how it's done. That's all."

Though his methods wouldn't necessarily suit every player, there is no doubt that Rotella and Harrington worked wonderfully well together, especially during the week of the 2007 Open at Carnoustie. And given Clarke's fragile temperament, what the American achieved at Royal St George's bordered on the miraculous.

Now, he and Clarke are back working together again and the impact is obvious, on and off the golf course.

At the start of the week, having carded rounds of 80 and 75 in the US Open, it seemed inconceivable that he could be in a share of 11th place at the halfway stage. Especially remarkable was that Friday's level-par round included a quadruple-bogey eight at the sixth, where three attempts at extricating himself from a greenside bunker brought to mind the lesson Seve Ballesteros gave him in bunker play during the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama.

In normal mode, that set-back would have been sufficient to have Clarke positively enveloped in red mist. Instead, he drew on breathtaking links skills to cover the remaining holes in one-under par, even with a bogey on the 18th. Off the course, he is giving no interviews for fear of any negative exchange. Though temperamentally, McIlroy and Clarke are obviously very different people, Rotella sees common fundamentals where their mental approach to golf is concerned.

"When Darren's a little off, he looks like he's a different player," he said. "But when his head's in the right place, he's fantastic. The point is that the talent and the skill are still in there. All that has to happen is that he gets out of his way sufficiently to let them out.

"I believe Rory could be put right quite quickly. Darren and I had a two-hour sit-down here on Tuesday night and at the end of it he said, 'I've just had a huge weight lifted off my shoulders'. And he went on to describe a light going on, he felt so much better. Rory's got to clear his head the same way."

Late on Friday evening, McIlroy stood before the assembled media with his hands in his pockets, genuinely attempting to convey some sense of his inner turmoil. Though the mood was understandably subdued, there was no suggestion of bitterness, evasion or self-pity. He was clearly in a bad place but was determined to extricate himself, his way.

Whether he is ultimately forced to relent and call in the mind doctor, only the coming weeks will tell.

Meanwhile, Muirfield has been presenting a wonderful test in the classical links tradition. With its fiery fairways and firm greens, it offers a reminder of heady days at the Irish Open when it was effectively an annual festival of all that is wonderful about the original of the species.

We remember the sustained sunshine of Royal Dublin in 1983, when the 17th green was almost lost in burning breezes and the dusty fairways of Portmarnock in 1989 when crowds stampeded down the dusty 18th fairway in pursuit of Philip Walton in an ill-fated play-off against Ian Woosnam.

Ian Poulter talked here about hitting a sand-wedge 192 yards downwind on the par-four 15th and of the easier challenge of gauging distance in the opposite direction. And while some would like to attribute it to that pesky global-warming thing, Muirfield has known these conditions in the past.

Tales from the Walker Cup of 1959 include one of a blocky, 19-year-old American kid called Nicklaus, who drove the second green on a hole which then measured 349 yards. And how he returned as the Golden Bear to win his first Open in 1966 at Muirfield and then chase the elusive Grand Slam in 1972 as holder of the Masters and US Open. That was when he drove within 100 yards of the 475-yard 10th and got close to the fringe of the green at the 386-yard 11th.

On a course offering such dramatic possibilities, it was perhaps fanciful to imagine it could offer McIlroy some mental comfort these last few days.

Irish Independent

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