For all of his greatness, I have always had my reservations about Rory McIlroy. He undoubtedly has spectacular golfing abilities and to have achieved what he has so far already makes him one of the greats. However my suspicions were first set racing when we witnessed the spectacular choke at the 2011 U.S Masters. Who could forget the images of the broken young man slumped over his golf club trying to hide himself from the world, his 80 in the last round was one of the biggest crumbles under pressure we have witnessed in golf. However, with all sorts of questions being asked of Mr McIlroy such as whether he could come back from such a meltdown, he blew every one away in a golfing and mental master class by winning the U.S Open later the same year. Since then he has been a relatively smooth operator claiming over 8 victories on the big stage.
However for me there has always been a lingering doubt and the recent struggle McIlroy has been in has got me questioning his legendary status once again. Since his move to Nike McIlroy has clearly underperformed by missing the cut in his first outing of the 2013 season in the Abu Dhabi Championship, he changed his putter mid competition back to his trusty Scotty Cameron and there was a severe lack of control over his golf ball, however this was only one tournament with new equipment so it would be unfair to judge him by this event. The next time we seen McIlroy was at the Accenture World Match Play, first round draw a fellow Irish man Mr Shane Lowry. Now anything can happen over one round of golf and 18 holes is not nearly enough to give a true reflection of who the best player really is when at the level that these guys are, however McIlroy is supposed to be that extra cut above, the special one. McIlroy lost his opening match and yet again had the early flight home. Moving on to the Honda Classic PGA Tour event in which McIlroy had won in 2012 and was keen to defend. During his Friday round after a steady opening 70 McIlroy hit two balls in to the lake on the 9th and decided he’d had enough for one week and duly said his goodbyes to his playing partners and walked of the golf course. The excuse given was that he was suffering with wisdom tooth pain and simply couldn’t concentrate any longer. Now watching McIlroy’s career so far he may well bounce back and win the Masters in a couple of weeks time and we will have all forgotten his start to the season. For me however I think the ups and downs in McIlroys’s performance are taking their toll psychologically.
As mentioned there is no doubt that McIlroy is a special player but when considering the psychology behind McIlroy’s golf game it has to be said he can lack stability at times. There is a psychological theory known as the ‘Goal Achievement Theory’ which explains how a player’s motivational orientations can affect their performance especially under pressure. The two main components of this theory are that a player can be either dominantly ‘task’ or ‘ego’ orientated. Traits of a task orientated players are that they have a strong focus on learning, developing their game, enjoying their sports and doing their best, giving 100% effort in their performance and practice is what these players focus on in their pursuit of success. Players who are dominantly ego orientated see success as winning in style, having a high social status and social recognition for their achievements, being seen to win with relative ease, and pulling of the heroic shots to win a tournament. Now it is said that a task orientation is a much healthier approach to your sport than ego orientation, this is because task orientated golfers tend to perform just as well under pressure as they would during a practice round as external factors such as the occasion and what others think of them do not impact upon these players. Ego orientated players on the other hand will often be the players to choke when things aren’t going to plan, this is because the worry of what they look like, what others will think about them and say often kick in and the fear of failure grows until it becomes unbearable, in time this can lead to drop out from the sport all together or a radical behaviour of some sort. It is said however that a good balance of both of these traits can be the most effective, this is because the ego orientation can keep that level of competitiveness there and the will to win, whereas the task orientated part of the player can keep them focused on the task in hand under pressure and not panic when things aren’t perfect. If we consider this theory in relation to Rory McIlroy we could say that he clearly enjoys the status and fame that comes with his golfing success, he likes to put on a show and who could blame him at 23 years of age. I think it’s fair to say that McIlroy certainly has many of the characteristics of an ego orientated player but has managed to keep these at bay with a decent level of task orientation. The problem that I see gradually unfolding and which is very much supported by recent and past performances (i.e. Masters 2011) is that his ego side may becoming the dominant overriding factor in his game, for example what could be more of a boost to the ego of a young man like Rory than to be signed by Nike, one of the biggest brands in the world, however with this extra ego boost came poor performance after poor performance with the latest one being dropping out of a tournament mid round, this is a typical characteristic of somebody who is playing their sport with an ego orientated attitude.
The next few months are going to be extremely interesting, however with the team that Rory McIlroy should have around him I fully expect him to be put back on the straight and narrow. But, if things aren’t taken care of soon we could witness some turbulent times ahead for the young Northern Irishman.
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About Spencer Vickery
I currently holds a bachelors and masters degree in sport and exercise psychology, this combined with 7 years experience as a professional golfer competing throughout the UK and Europe gives me an almost unrivalled amount of knowledge and understanding about the psychology behind performing under pressure and how the brain works during these pressure situations. I am always happy to answer any questions