THE pressure to succeed in sport is pushing more and more athletes towards stress-related illnesses, says Rory McIlroy, who is looking to put a troubled year on and off the course behind him at this week’s Australian Open at Royal Sydney.
McIlroy, who slipped from the top of the rankings to world No 6 after a winless 2013, said the mental toll of sport could far outweigh the physical pressures, and cases such as that of England cricketer Jonathan Trott were becoming more frequent.
Trott flew home from Australia on Monday to deal with a stress-related illness following England’s calamitous start to the Ashes series.
“It’s sad to see something like that happen and it just shows what a mental toll sport can take on you sometimes,” McIlroy said.
“Hopefully, he gets home and spends some time with his family and recovers and can come back. As sport becomes so big and there’s so much pressure and so much on the line, it’s becoming more and more common that these sorts of stress-related illnesses are happening and it just shows how much of a mental toll it takes on you sometimes.”
The Northern Irish 24-year-old said there was a world of difference between casual banter on the golf course and the sledging that took place in Brisbane, where England were thrashed by 381 runs in the first Test.
“I think the sledging this year has probably been a bit worse than other years as well,” he added. “It looks like they’re just having a go at each other after every ball. It would be really tough to take that for however long you’re out there for. They seem to really get at each other’s throats.”
McIlroy himself has had to deal with a myriad of off-course distractions this year, but his form seems to be improving heading into the final events of the year. In addition to his high-profile switch to Nike, a dispute with American sportswear company Oakley and his split with Dublin-based Horizon Sports Management, McIlroy has also had to deal with the media focus on his relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
“It’s been a long year, I guess, mentally more than physically,” he added. “Physically, golf doesn’t take that much out of you but, mentally, it’s quite draining, especially this year for me, not just the golf and being frustrated with my game but having to answer the questions and having to come up with reasons why I’m not playing well and all that stuff.”
McIlroy will face stiff competition at Royal Sydney from Masters champion Adam Scott and another Australian, Jason Day, who won the World Cup’s individual trophy by two strokes on Sunday.
“I’ve said for the last couple of months I just wanted to try to finish this season strongly and get some momentum to go in 2014,” added McIlroy. “This would be the perfect place to get that first win of the year and give me a sort of springboard into the next season.”
Scott is looking to become only the second person in history to complete a triple crown Down Under if he can add the title to the Australian PGA Championship and Australian Masters he won earlier this month, while he also partnered Day to victory in the team section of the World Cup at Royal Melbourne.
Scott said: “Obviously, I’m excited about this week with the chance to win the triple crown of Australian golf like Robert [Allenby] did a few years back [in 2005], so there is a lot on the line and a lot to play for.
“I’m certainly looking forward to having a go at it this week. The course [Royal Sydney] is looking good and the competition is tough.
“I think it will be a well-earned victory for whoever ends up on top.”
Asked if he had caught up with Allenby and whether there had been any pre-tournament sledging, Scott joked: “I’ll leave the sledging to the cricketers.
“I caught up with Robert on Tuesday night at the function and I asked some advice on how to go about it but he didn’t offer any up. I’m left to my own devices this week.”
The tournament also marks the first new Open Qualifying Series with three places in next year’s Open Championship at Hoylake available to players who finish inside the top 10 who are not already exempt.
McIlroy, Scott, Day and American Kevin Streelman are the only four players in the 156-strong field who are exempt.