“EVERYTHING away from golf is in a really good place, I’m happy and I can go and try and play the golf that I know that I can.” The words of a smiling Rory McIlroy on 14 January as he prepared to make his first appearance of the 2014 season in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship.
Roll forward four months and it’s now anyone’s guess what standard of performance we can expect from McIlroy, not just in the BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour’s flagship event, starting today, but also the weeks and months ahead.
Suddenly – and completely out of the blue – the 25-year-old is not in a good place off the course. Breaking his engagement with the tennis player, Caroline Wozniacki, was not what he had in mind, surely, as the season really starts to crank up.
It was an ashen-faced McIlroy who appeared in the media centre here yesterday, having earlier released a statement confirming that “Wozzilroy” – the highest-profile sporting relationship since Greg Norman and Chris Evert were together – was no more.
Credit to him for facing the Fourth Estate in such circumstances. He handled the line of questioning impeccably, too. Only once, when he was asked about popping the question on Sydney Harbour a few weeks after winning the Australian Open, did he show signs of regretting the public grilling.
It would have been easy for McIlroy, whose mind must be all over the place, to have headed home to his plush pad in Florida and not played this week. He cherishes his roots, however, and said he feels a duty to support the European Tour’s showpiece event.
When he spoke in Abu Dhabi, it really did look as though an exciting year was lying ahead for McIlroy, both on and off the course. Now, on the back of him failing to turn a string of promising performances into victories, his personal life has been thrown into turmoil.
It is the last thing McIlroy needed after his annus horribilis in 2013. An equipment change took time to adjust to. World No 1 when he made that switch, he is now ranked tenth. His 2013 campaign was also tarnished by a messy management switch, one that has still to be resolved in an Irish court. Only time will tell how McIlroy is affected by no longer having Wozniacki in his life. If he is the one who has taken cold feet, it will be difficult, initially at least, for him to concentrate on golf. Some, however, will hail it as a positive step as far as his career is concerned.
Wozniacki, after all, is not exactly a shrinking violet. Her public presence at tournaments McIlroy has been playing in during their three years together has been a genuine concern for those looking for him to add to the two majors – the 2011 US Open and 2012 US PGA Championship – he won in such impressive fashion.
Take this year’s Dubai Desert Classic, for instance. During the final round, she was inside the ropes and went over and spoke to McIlroy as he and his playing partner, Stephen Gallacher, waited on one tee. On occasions such as those, has McIlroy’s mind totally been on the task at hand? Other players have girlfriends and wives following them round courses, but they stay in the shadows.
If McIlroy does indeed feel he is not yet ready to tie the knot, then he has made the sensible decision, painful though it may feel at the moment. For someone with so much talent, however, he does seem to have a propensity to keep putting himself in the spotlight.
It started at the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St George’s, when he came out with some utter nonsense about not having the game to win on a links course and has continued through two management moves – first leaving Chubby Chandler’s ISM stable, then departing from Horizon Sports.
He is still a young man, of course, and, like anyone else, needs to learn from his mistakes.
Wozniacki was not his first love. She was Holly Sweeney, the young woman who was on his arm at the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor.
He got over splitting with her and now needs to leave the Wozniacki chapter of his life in the past, too.
Can he mark deciding to “move on” by winning at Wentworth this weekend? It’s a tough ask, especially when he has not exactly set the heather on fire here on previous visits.
“At least you’re at a golf course that you love,” a colleague sarcastically pointed out, providing McIlroy with the only chance to crack a smile in his press conference.
“I just want to get my head into golf this week and concentrate on the tournament and try and do well,” he declared.
“I just want to dive straight into it and keep myself somewhat busy and just try and have a good week on the course. I’m not going to lie. It’s going to be very difficult. But at least when I get inside the ropes I can just try and concentrate on the shot at hand.”
As things stand, he has no plans to change his schedule, which is good news for the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, having committed to playing in that at Royal Aberdeen in a couple of months. Barring a serious loss of form, he will also be heading to Gleneagles in September for a third successive Ryder Cup appearance.
By then, the pain McIlroy is feeling in his heart right now should have subsided, though, for now, the young man estimated to be worth more than £30 million is finding that money simply can’t guarantee an easy and straightforward life.