Walk-off can be kick in butt McIlroy needs – Doctor Bob
THE golf ball never hits back but those who play this maddening sport are forever beating themselves up. It keeps sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella's consultation couch busy and ensures his books become best-sellers.
The sight of World No 1 Rory McIlroy, the game's most gifted player, abandoning all hope on the 18th fairway at PGA National last Friday made a potent case for golf clubs to carry a mental health warning.
Few are better qualified than Rotella to understand the demons of self-doubt and frustration which (along with toothache) hounded and harried the 23-year-old defending champion into abject surrender at The Honda.
McIlroy doesn't use a sports psychologist, though Rotella has conversed with the Holywood native on a couple of occasions in the past. Yet the good doctor at least can put the public's mind at rest about the long-term implications of Friday's meltdown. There aren't any, he argues.
Experience from a career in which he has helped the elite of men and women's golf win 74 Majors, including Ireland's own Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell, tells Dr Rotella that Friday is likely to serve as a turning point for McIlroy.
"I think his swing probably is a little off and he's not finding it easy to put it together," Rotella said. "It's obviously got to him a little. I don't know if the word is 'heartbroken' or 'frustrated' but it did seem to be tearing his heart out.
"Yet a lot of times in sport, you do something like last Friday and you bottom out," he went on. "And that gives you the incentive to bounce back up again. My guess is that walking off the course like that will probably cause him to go 'Oh My God' ... a lot of times when something like that happens, it gives you a kick in the butt.
"You know how close Rory is. It might appear as if he's light years away but it's only a fraction of an inch," Rotella added. "He'll be fine. You know, if he goes out and wins at Doral this week or at Arnold's tournament in Bay Hill or the Masters, The Honda will be forgotten in a heartbeat.
"Sure everyone will be saying what great clubs Rory's playing with," he laughed.
Having to live 24-7 under global scrutiny forced the World No 1 to endure pressures beyond the comprehension of the vast majority of golfers and, indeed, his predecessors at the pinnacle of the sport.
"Anyone who plays golf knows that it's going to get to them sometime. The difference with Rory is that it seems the entire world is writing or talking about it," the doctor went on.
"If he wasn't No 1 and hadn't signed a huge equipment contract, nobody would be saying anything about it. They'd just say he hadn't played any golf yet."
That's a fair point. McIlroy is just one of 15 players to withdraw from PGA Tour events this season. Of the eight who walked off the course in mid-round, few indeed had to answer questions as, visibly upset, they walked to their car.
This is not to excuse McIlroy or his shocking retreat last Friday, just to point out that a lot more Tour professionals than one might imagine are hounded by demons.
"All the great players go through spells when they question themselves," Rotella said. "Go read Jack Nicklaus' biography and he talks about periods where he wondered if he'd ever make another putt again.
"It looked like Rory thought he'd never hit another (good) drive again," he added. "With Jack it was the putter and Rory it's the driver. Thing is, they feel this way and the world can't understand it.
"They look at Rory and can't imagine him missing a shot. They look at Jack and can't imagine him struggling with his putter. Yet not even Jack had to deal with the kind of scrutiny Rory does. He and Arnie could always find space if they wanted it. Everything wasn't blown out of proportion as it is today."
Even then, some of the sport's biggest legends have picked up their ball in frustration and walked, including that greatest American icon of them all, Bobby Jones, who abandoned his first British Open at St Andrews in frustration after failing with four attempts to hit out of a greenside bunker.
The fact that McIlroy's adjusting to new clubs and, inevitably, feels obliged to justify the massive new contract he's signed with Nike, helped turn the screw even tighter.
"Anybody who's a nice person is going to feel a lot of appreciation for what that company is doing for him and the trust they've put in him," said Rotella. "He'd very much like to show them how much it means to him but you have to step on the golf course and just play for yourself."
The psychologist heartily agreed with Graeme McDowell's assertion that the golfer who stops playing for himself and instead tries to play for others is headed for trouble.
"That's a really good comment. It's easy to play for yourself when nobody cares about your golf, whether it's people at home in Ireland or Nike giving you this unbelievable deal which sets up you and your family for life.
"You have to take all of that junk and throw it in a trash can when you're on the golf course," Dr Bob insisted. "It's a lot easier to say than do but I've no doubt Rory will get there."
• McIlroy's media conference scheduled for this morning at Doral has been put back to tomorrow.