Rory McIlroy’s biggest problem is not his new Nike equipment, his wisdom tooth or the inevitable adjustment period that comes along with newly found fame and fortune.
Nope. McIlroy’s biggest problem is Tiger Woods.
McIlroy and Woods may very well duke it out on the golf course over the next five years or so, but that isn’t really McIlroy’s problem either
McIlroy’s problem is that golf’s last global superstar—Woods—set an almost unachievable bar for the game’s next global superstar—McIlroy.
Woods was the last player to win multiple majors at a young age and demand the type of endorsement dollars McIlroy is currently enjoying.
Golf reached a completely new level of popularity during Woods’ prime years, and, as a result, Woods has created an image in everyone’s mind of how a true golfing superstar should perform.
In essence, we were spoiled with Woods and now believe that a golfer is not truly great or is not really golf’s “next big thing” unless he is winning 30 percent of his tournaments, racking up seven majors in four years, making 142 consecutive cuts and contending virtually every single time he tees it up.
McIlroy, as talented as he may be, is simply not that guy.
Woods is a once-in-a-lifetime player. He’s a player who ranks amongst the top three players to have ever picked up a golf club.
McIlroy is more than likely a once-in-a-generation player. He could very well have an amazing career, winning 50 tournaments worldwide and capturing eight or nine majors.
But the likelihood of McIlroy dominating the game in a manner even remotely close to what Woods did in the late 90s and throughout most of the 2000s is slim to none.
And that is not by any means a knock on McIlroy. This prediction is essentially saying that he could become one of the top 10 or top 20 greatest golfers of all time, which is obviously an incredible accomplishment.
This prediction is simply saying that he is not going to be the next Woods, and therein lies McIlroy’s ultimate conundrum.
When we talk about a “passing of the torch” in golf, we somehow think that this means McIlroy will step up and completely dominate the game in a manner similar to Woods.
And when this doesn’t occur just as we had imagined, we begin asking, “What’s wrong with Rory?”
This, needless to say, puts a tremendous amount of pressure on a young, 23-year-old golfer.
Fans and the media alike expect McIlroy to win 30 percent of his tournaments, be in contention every time he tees it up, win majors like they are local club championships, etc. because, well, that’s what Woods did, and that is what we have come to expect from a truly great golfer.
McIlroy is not immune to the chatter amongst fans and analysts, and he clearly feels pressure to perform at a very high level. And this pressure has also more than likely been increased significantly since signing a reported $200 million contract with Nike—no one wants to be the guy who signs a $200 million deal and then doesn’t go out and perform.
The fact that Nike has been trying to pass McIlroy off as Woods' heir through their branding and popular commercials also hasn’t been helping matters much for McIlroy.
All of this has been brewing in the pot for more than two months and officially began boiling over last Friday when McIlroy walked off the course at the Honda Classic after being seven over par through just eight holes of his second round.
McIlroy would later cite “wisdom-tooth pain” as the reason for his early exit, but most would agree that this explanation was suspicious at best.
McIlroy now appears as lost as ever both on and off the golf course.
McIlroy is still in the very early stages of his career, but he has already shown a propensity to go on cold streaks where he misses cuts and looks more like a journeyman pro than the world No. 1, followed by incredibly hot streaks where he wins multiple tournaments and completely runs away with major championships.
McIlroy could essentially be described as Phil Mickelson on steroids.
When Mickelson is on, he contends and wins here and there. But when McIlroy is on, he can literally win majors by eight strokes, just as he did at the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship and run off stretches where he wins three out of five events.
Like it or not, that is Rory McIlroy.
He’s not going to contend every week. He’s going to have hot and cold stretches, and he’s not going to dominate the game in a manner even remotely close to what Woods did during the first 14 years of his career.
The quicker McIlroy realizes this and blocks out all of the comparisons to Woods and the media asking “What’s wrong with Rory?” every time he misses a cut or posts a bad round, the quicker he will become comfortable in his own skin and get back to the business of winning golf tournaments.
"I've never said that I want to be the next anyone," McIlroy stated exactly one year ago at Doral. "I just want to be the first Rory McIlroy, however good that turns out to be." This is a mindset that McIlroy certainly needs to get back to if he wants to succeed in the coming years.
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