Lawrence Donegan: New Year, new rules – same old Rory McIlroy

Rory's doing fine, but could be doing a lot better, says Lawrence Donegan...

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Congratulations to Matt Kuchar, who won the Sony Open in Hawaii last night, his second PGA Tour win in recent months. But let’s be honest – who cares, right?

The goofy-looking American is the classic modern professional golf construct, talented but boring, a human ATM machine with about as much charisma as an actual ATM machine.

He is enjoying a late career revival – albeit against a backdrop of claims he stiffed his local caddy when he won the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico last November, paying him just $3,000 of his $1.2m winner’s cheque – but in the greater scheme of sporting interest two Matt Kuchar wins barely registers on the scale of one Rory McIlroy conundrum.

Normally, the Irishman would be in Abu Dhabi this week for the HSBC, traditionally the first big event of any European Tour season. Instead, he is at home in Florida getting ready for his next PGA Tour appearance, which could come in San Diego at the end of this month or in Phoenix early in February.

As he announced at the end of 2018, McIlroy intends to play more in the States this year, a shift in geographical focus aimed at improving his chances in the first three major championships, all of which will be played in the States in the three months from April.

“I’m looking out for me,’’ he said, when asked why he was all but abandoning the European Tour, the circuit which after all gave him his start in professional life.

McIlroy was widely criticised for being “self-centred”. But as an employment lawyer might point out, he is an independent contractor and is therefore duty bound to “look after me”. Besides, we love his trademark candour. Don’t we?

Yet watching the Irishman miss out again on a winning chance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Maui last weekend, the seventh time in the last year where he was in the final pairing on Sunday but came up short, it was clear the problems with his game have little to do with where he chooses to base himself.

If it was possible write off the latest disappointment to the brilliance of the criminally underrated Xander Schauffele, who shot 62 to win in Maui, it is impossible to deny a pattern has emerged – McIlroy can no longer close out tournaments.

Once upon a time, to say such a thing would be to invite imminent embarrassment as the Irishman (who reads widely and doesn’t take kindly to perceived slights) romps away from the field in his next event. Yet facts are facts, and the fact is the Irishman has won just once since May 2016, at the Bay Hill Invitational last March.

That win in Arnie’s old event hinted that something great was about to happen at the Masters a few weeks later. Sure enough the Irishman played himself into the final group on Sunday alongside Patrick Reed. After hitting his opening tee shot off the planet, albeit that he somehow made par, McIlroy played out the rest of his round in a whimper to finish tied fifth.

Last Sunday’s effort in Mau was equally weak. The same goes for his post-tournament musings before departing Hawaii. “Obviously, I could have shot a better score but I did what I wanted to do,’’ he said, puzzlingly.

It is written in the DNA of world-class athletes that public displays of self-doubt or  weakness are to be avoided. Yet there comes a time when an athlete has to look in the mirror and start telling some home truths.

Failing that, someone in his entourage (McIlroy, like all globally recognised athletes/brands, has a healthy-sized entourage) has to summon the courage to speak up and tell the great man that nothing will change unless he acknowledges something needs to change.

In McIlroy’s case, he needs to know that Sunday is no longer his fun day.

That’s the problem. As for a solution?

Some will argue he has a tendency to miss shots to the right under pressure, or that his putting isn’t good enough. (It certainly wasn’t in Hawaii, where he didn’t hole a putt over 15 feet all week). Fix those and his game is fixed, right?

If only it were that simple.The truth is that McIlroy has won four majors without ever being a brilliant putter, just as he has won tournaments without being quite at his ball-striking best.

Everyone succumbs to pressure sometimes. It’s human nature. Besides, at 29 years old, the Irishman’s physiology and biomechanics aren’t going to change very much, except to decline as the ageing process takes hold.

That leaves the psychological side. McIlroy is a headstrong fellow who doesn’t take kindly to being told what to do. There is strength in that, no doubt, but there is also terrible weakness.

Carol Dweck is a Stanford psychology professor who vaulted to the forefront of sports psychology with the publication of her book, Mindset, in which  she divided the world into two different types of people, those with what she called a “fixed” mindset and those with a “growth” mindset.

The former believes that we cannot change very much about ourselves, that we have the talents and failings that we started out with and there is very little we can do alter our pre-ordained career path.

The latter takes the opposite view – that there is nothing about our sporting capabilities that cannot be changed without hard work and effort; that there is nothing “fixed’ when it comes to an athlete’s potential.

In the world of golf, Nick Faldo, who won six majors after completely overhauling his swing, and Francesco Molinari, who won last year’s Open at the age of 35 after dedicating himself to improving what he self-identified as weaknesses in his game, are the two most obvious examples of a “growth” mindset in action.

McIlroy has more natural talent than either of those two. But what he apparently does not have is the capacity for self-examination that Faldo and Molinari had, or the courage they showed in facing up to their own weaknesses.

Indeed, he clearly fancies himself as being mentally strong, having famously eschewed sports psychologists throughout his career. He has been similarly stubborn, not to mention unfocused, when attempting to tackle his relative weakness on the greens, shuttling through a rotating cast of putting coaches over the years.

In short, McIlroy displays all the characteristics of a “fixed” mindset. He is resistant to change and he won’t be told. Of course, his talents and personality have carried him to personal fortune of $250m (at least), a wonderful personal life and a great career on the course.

But where once it was possible to imagine him winning a dozen majors, the best case scenario right now would be him matching Faldo’s haul of six. That would be a fantastic achievement, of course, but it would still leave room for “what if?”

What if McIlroy took a look at his Ryder Cup teammate Molinari and said, “I want to be like him. I want to make the absolute most of the talents I have been gifted”?

He’s a very smart guy so maybe the penny will drop.

Or maybe one of his entourage will summon the courage that has so far deserted them and tell the boss what he needs to hear. Failing that, they should buy McIlroy a copy of Carol Dweck’s Mindset and slip it in the seat front pocket of his private jet.

It’s available in all good bookshops for a tenner. Cheap at twice the price.

McIlroy is priced at 1/4 to win Zero majors in 2019