LATE last year, Rory McIlroy underwent eye surgery. Big deal, right? Well, it was to a player who wanted to have the operation as long ago as 2008 but who was acutely aware of the risks involved.
Anxious to have built up his CV to the degree where he would have something to look back on should surgery go wrong, it’s evidently clear McIlroy’s teenage vision was, in many ways, perfect, even if certain things in his eyeline appeared blurred.
“I’ve always felt I struggled reading greens,” McIlroy said. “I’ve always struggled with my eyes, especially in the summer with hayfever, when you’re rubbing your eyes and sometimes things would get under the contact lens.”
So post-surgery, that problem has been erased. The trouble is, though, that new issues have cropped up, namely his inability to play consistently well from Thursday through Sunday. After all, this is a guy who Jordan Spieth, the winner of last year’s Masters and US Open, described as ‘spectacular’ but also one who, in fine conditions, could hit six double-bogeys in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, posting a 65 on the Sunday of that tournament after recording 75s on the Thursday and Saturday.
This is a guy who can tie for third at the WGC-Cadillac Championship, but miss the cut at The Honda Classic, one who twice has led tournaments in the last six weeks and twice has blown up.
His confidence wasn’t helped at the recent World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play – where he played superbly en route to the semi-finals before losing to Jason Day. “I didn’t take advantage of a few chances I had,” he said, before subtly adding, “but if I can learn from that…”
Worrying about McIlroy’s capacity to absorb the lessons from his mistakes is a pointless exercise given how right through his career he has blown hot and cold, taking a four-shot lead into the final round of the 2011 Masters before falling apart under the glare of the spotlight. At that stage, plenty wondered if he’d ever recover. Two months later he was US Open champion.“Rory has always been streaky,” Alan Shipnuck, senior golf writer at Sports Illustrated, wrote last week. “And he can have a great season with one hot stretch at the right time, as we saw in 2014. So it's far too soon to call this a lost year or anything of that sort. What's alarming to me is it doesn't seem like he's having much fun out there. He's always played with such an admirable insouciance and lately he's looked more dour than Jim Furyk with a raging haemorrhoid.”
Ironically this perceived grumpiness comes at a time when his personal life has never appeared better. Engaged to Erica Stoll, just two years after his headline-grabbing split from Caroline Wozniacki, his previous fiancée, the low-profile nature of this latest relationship appears to suit.
“Erica brings such a level of normality to everything,” McIlroy said. “She has a calming presence, a sereneness and that’s not just on me; it is noticeable in any company. She never wants to be the centre of attention and is always very comfortable in the background.”
Staying in the background is the last place McIlroy wants to be this week, though. His year is geared around the Majors, and at least one commentator has publicly opined that the reason he has yet to blow away the field in 2016 stems largely from his indifference to the minor events which fill golf’s calendar in between the four biggies in April, June, July and August.Motivation to win at Augusta won’t be an issue, though, not just because of what happened – or more to the point, what didn’t happen – in 2011, but also because he is desperate to win a career Grand Slam, having lifted the other three Major trophies. Hence, his decision to withdraw from the pre-tournament par-3 competition.
"It's a bit of a distraction," McIlroy said, and sideshows are the last thing he needs.
If the absence of the spotlight is welcome, the absence of consistency on the greens, is not. A new putting grip – he now reverses his hands – has had mixed results.
“It feels good,” he said last month. “There are a few things I just need to tidy up in my game.”
Essentially, the only gardening work, though, is on the greens because from tee-to-green, his accuracy and distance is excellent. “In Abu Dhabi, he was pretty unbelievable,” Spieth said. “That was the Rory that I have seen win Majors.”
Will we see that Rory again, though? Having won four Majors to date in his career – but none last year – he is one win away from matching Seve Ballesteros’s tally and three shy of matching Harry Vardon’s (the most successful ever European) record. Yet he doesn’t have a target in his head in terms of how many he aims to get. “You can’t,” he said. “The game isn’t that simple.”
To add to the complications, Scott, Day and Spieth are as obsessed as he is.
“Each year, around this time, it’s exciting. Every golfer’s sense of anticipation ahead of Augusta, the first major of the year, is huge,” he said. “The competition will be great and I think this should be an exciting year for golf in general. Jordan is the type of guy that seems very level-headed and he will take it all in his stride, so there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to play like he has been playing.”
Nor is there reason to disbelieve McIlroy when he says his game feels good and his head is in a good place. He knows this year – with golf returning to the Olympics – has the potential to be the biggest of his career.
“While it is a bit different for us, compared to the other Olympic athletes who will be there for the three weeks (he’ll only be in Brazil for one week) we’re really looking forward to it.
“For most of the athletes down there it’s a culmination of four years of really hard work getting ready for it. But for us it’s after the major season and we’re going down because it will be a great experience and hopefully representing our countries and nations to try to win gold.”
Before then he wants to win big. And nothing – even the Open Championship – would be bigger to him than victory in Augusta this week.