Can we stop talking about what’s wrong with Rory McIlroy?

02.01.15 rory trophy

Rory McIlroy’s last major victory came at the PGA Championship two years ago. In the time since that win at Valhalla, Rory has played in 42 events worldwide, winning five times and placing inside the top-15 in 30 of those 42 starts. He’s got 8 top-5 finishes in fifteen starts this year alone. Admittedly, Rory most certainly does not qualify as “most players,” but for most players, that would be the definition of a fantastic run of golf. For Rory, this stretch has meant that according to some, he has fallen behind the pack.

In the most recent Official World Golf Rankings released on Monday, Rory sits in fourth place behind Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth. A sensical analysis as to how he’s gotten to that point after spending much of 2015 at the number one spot is more about Day, Johnson and Spieth playing what most would deem as the best golf of their careers than it is a reflection of a steep decline in Rory’s prowess. But for some, he has become a victim of his past success, and when he is not repeatedly lifting major championship trophies, the victories themselves seem long forgotten.

Those that are trying to build a case for Rory’s “struggles” have done so on some unsure footing. Johnny Miller mentioned during Saturday’s third round at the Open Championship that Rory hadn’t been playing well because like Tiger, he’s spent too much time in the gym and that he cared too much about showing off his muscles in tight shirts. This was carried over and mentioned again on Sunday, but because of who mentioned it, it was easy to write it off as Johnny being Johnny and fire off a few tweets making fun of the idea.

But then, Golf Channel’s Morning Drive took to the air on Monday, with mental coach Dr. Gio Valiante presenting his psychological scorecards up to this point in the season with host Damon Hack. In case you’re not aware, Valiante has worked for a little while with the Golf Channel as an analyst, and has worked with numerous successful PGA Tour players, including Justin Rose, Matt Kuchar and Ernie Els. I can’t speak to Valiante’s work personally, but given his clientele, it’s obvious that they think highly of him and that he is helping them become better players. Rory, however, is not one of his clients.

The Rory portion, where he is given a ‘C’ grade, starts at roughly the 1:10 mark of the video linked here. They begin with a clip of Rory talking with David Feherty a few weeks ago where he admitted that he wouldn’t have been fist bumping anyone in a major, like Rickie Fowler and Phil Mickelson did at Valhalla, because he would have been trying to beat them. That’s where the craziness starts, with Hack and Valiante’s comments in bold.

Hack: “What are you hearing from the four time major champion off that sound, Doctor?”

Valiante: “Yeah, there’s a shift that happens to golfers at the elite level where they go from mastery to ego, right? They go from playing golf for the love of the game to playing for the recognition, to beat other players and the underlying motivation is different.

Mastery to ego? Are we at the point with Rory where we think he’s only playing golf to feed his ego? I certainly don’t think so. Rory did admit in that Feherty interview that he doesn’t really play golf for fun anymore, but I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that what he’s doing implies that he doesn’t love the game anymore. Rory’s motivations at this point are clear, but if he didn’t love the game anymore, it’s hard for me to believe that he would keep playing it. It’s not like he needs the money or the celebrity attention.

Valiante: When I hear something like that, if you’re needing a spark like that; if you randomly watched Rickie and Phil high-fiving and that’s the spark that gets you going, there’s probably something problematic in how you’re approaching the game. He’s acknowledged that he’s got a mental block at Augusta, he’s getting annoyed by watching players fist bump each other. Now, the converse is golf is best played when players are having fun. Why were Rickie and Phil fist bumping? Because they were getting in flow; they were enjoying playing the game, right? And riding that high.

Ah, yes. Golf is best played when players are having fun with each other. Except for, you know, the best player that many of us have ever seen play the game.

US golfer Tiger Woods stands on the 14th green, on the second day of the 138th British Open Championship at Turnberry Golf Course in south west Scotland, on July 17, 2009. AFP PHOTO/Glyn Kirk (Photo credit should read GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

Do you know what the most fun is? When you win golf tournaments. And look, I can’t criticize Phil and Rickie for doing what was working at Valhalla. If that’s what they felt got them going, that’s great. The players should do whatever they feel like helps them win, whether it’s fist bumping, wearing hats backwards or playing with $3.81 in change in their pockets. So, if I’m formulating an argument of examples where Rory’s mind doesn’t appear in the right place, I probably wouldn’t start with his fourth major championship at the age of 25. That mental block at Augusta? Sure, that’s a problem that we’d all like to see Rory rectify, but at least he’s admitting that it’s there. Unlike Tiger, we know that Rory isn’t exactly lacking in the honesty department, so maybe this is his way of working through it.

Valiante: Rory saying last week ‘I got into golf to win championships, not to grow the game.’

I will agree that this probably could have been phrased better, yes. But, he’s stating that his main focus is you know, to win. Wouldn’t it be more concerning if he said he was not focused on winning, and that he just wanted to grow the game?

Valiante: Just the things coming out of his mouth; how many poses can you do with your shirt off on Instagram, right?

Um, how about zero poses on Instagram with his shirt off?

Valiante: Johnny Miller acknowledging that maybe he’s more interested in working out than playing golf.

Like Miller was back in the early 80’s, according to this excellent pull from by Michael Shamburger?

” Then he started working on his golf game, changing his swing to accommodate the Joe Palooka type of frame he had built by chopping trees and lifting logs in the off-season after he won the British Open in 1976. Miller, the kid with the dazzling blond hair, unassuming blue and the rawboned face, had fleshed out like a linebacker and was now wearing shirts with a size 18 collar. His muscles rippled and he was far less flexible than the slim fashion model around whom Sears had built an entire line of men’s wear. “

No, players should definitely all strive for the Tim Herron/Phil Mickelson “subcutaneous fat” look and not try to keep themselves in shape. Thoughts, Mister Player?

I can’t believe we’ve actually gotten to the point where players are criticized for being in shape!

Valiante: There’s so many things that are coming out of his mouth these days that are so different from a 21, 22, 23 year old Rory when he was a bit younger, a bit more innocent and playing mastery golf. I just don’t like a lot of the things that we’re hearing or seeing out of what he’s doing.

WHAT IS THIS MASTERY GOLF? WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? He wins a lot, and is pretty much always in the conversation, which in case you haven’t noticed, is really difficult to do even at the highest level and with his skill set. Finishing inside the top-15 at an over 70% clip, while playing against the best fields in the strongest events every year, is insanely good. I’m all for having a conversation around why he hasn’t won more, but it’s not like he hasn’t been performing. If anything, he’s gotten more consistent as the years have gone on.

No sensible adult, professional golfer or otherwise, says the same things at 27 that they did at 21. He’s not the same person he was six years ago, and we shouldn’t expect him to be either.

Hack: “What would you tell him?”

Valiante: “I would tell him to stop doing commercials; standing in the hall of fame.

Listen, we’re all in agreement that no one needs to see that Omega commercial ever again, but the take here is that Rory should forgo millions of dollars to take a few hours a day, a few times a year to film some commercials? Every top player, including Valiante’s clients, do commercials. Jack Nicklaus did them, so did Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino. Even Ben Hogan did commercials! Is the argument that he’s missing practice time because of them? I don’t see how this is an issue.

Valiante: Stop seeing yourself as a brand. Simplify. Think in Rocky IV.

You mean when Sly Stallone did nothing but chop wood and pull dog sleds to get himself in better shape?

tiger rory sled

I don’t understand how a professional psychologist suggested that Rory take his real life routine and change it to match a fictional movie. Although, Sly didn’t have Instagram back in the day, either. If he did, he might not have beaten Drago.

Valiante: Get back to playing the game and keeping it simple. Get rid of the nonsense. Remind yourself that it’s all about golf. I mean, look at Jason Day. How Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and how Phil think and talk about the game.

So, he should start thinking and talking about the game like the guy who people have constantly ripped over the years for not caring enough and being dumb? That narrative was debunked very well last year on the No Laying Up podcast by Chris Solomon and Kyle Porter, but literally the only thing that’s changed with DJ is that he won the U.S. Open, giving him one major championship victory. That means he’s still three back of Rory, and I fail to see how that one win means that Rory should change what he’s doing to follow him.

At Rory’s current age, Phil was still six years away from winning his first major. Rory is a clean 19 years younger than him, and trails him by exactly one in career majors. Unless the take here is that Rory needs to get back to wearing his aggressive colours, I can’t say that I understand this at all.

Valiante: I think the way they look at him, they’re probably saying the same things. They all pay attention to each other, and they’re thinking ‘Man, we respect your game, but the way you’re talking and the way you’re thinking, it’s not right.’”

Yes, they all pay attention to each other, but I’m pretty sure that they’re all quite aware of how good Rory is and since they all pay attention to each other, I’m quite sure that they’re aware that he’s doing just fine on the course, too. Even if he isn’t playing mastery golf.

The underlying theme here is pretty simple: there’s nothing wrong with Rory McIlroy, and we really need to stop trying to fight that idea. He’s not a bad player or person for not wanting to congratulate his playing partners while he’s trying to win a tournament, he doesn’t need to pretend he’s fighting a steroid filled Russian and he’s certainly not working out too much. We’re talking about a 27 year old with four career major wins and a Masters victory shy of the grand slam. Sure, Rory hasn’t won a major in seven tries, but even Tiger at his peak went through a stretch in 2003 and 2004 where he didn’t win one. It happens because golf is hard, and the fields are so deep now that it’s not a given that one of a few guys come away victorious each week.

As I mentioned above, Valiante is well respected in his field and doing live TV isn’t an easy thing. Maybe this all kinda just came out wrong, but I can’t help but have an issue with a lot of what he said based on the evidence that we have in front of us when it comes to Rory’s game. He wins, seems to play well the majority of the time when he doesn’t win and he’s fun to watch.

It doesn’t get much better than that, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with him.

9 Comments on “Can we stop talking about what’s wrong with Rory McIlroy?”

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