SEOUL (Reuters) - In a year when Rory McIlroy has failed to muster a win, missed the cut at the British Open, quit a tournament mid-round and broke a club in frustration, it says much about his troubled private life that he still finds solace in playing golf.
With a high-profile relationship with Caroline Wozniacki hogging the headlines and a bitter court case lurking in the background, McIlroy has no shortage of distractions to overcome before he can recapture the form that shot him to the top of the order of merit on both sides of the Atlantic last year.
Paid a king’s ransom by Nike to switch equipment at the start of the year, McIlroy was expected to cement his place among golfing royalty in 2013 but instead found himself fighting for scraps with the rank and file.
His early season struggles could be put down to a bedding-in process with the new clubs, but it is hard to believe a talent like his cannot adapt to new ‘sticks’ in 10 months.
After all, it is unlikely Nike supplied him with the wooden-shafted Brassies, Mashies and Niblicks of yesteryear as part of his reported 10-year, $250 million equipment deal.
Golf, as McIlroy says, is a game of confidence and that precious commodity seemed to seep away with each winless week, as erratic iron play and poor putting planted the seeds of doubt that there would be no quick fix to this slump.
His frustrations have boiled over at times.
McIlroy withdrew in the second round of the Honda Classic, blaming dental problems for his decision to simply walk off the course, and at the U.S. Open was so disgusted with his wedge play he simply drove a club into the ground till it buckled.
Is it swing mechanics or the mental game that has caused him to slip from the game’s top-ranked player to sixth in the world?
“I think it was a little bit of both,” McIlroy sighed at a news conference in Seoul this week ahead of the Korea Open, which is being co-sanctioned by the OneAsia and Korean Tours.
”Mechanically my golf swing... I fell into a couple of bad habits and I was trying to work myself out of it. It affects mental issues as well.
”Golf is a game of confidence and if you are confident it allows you to play better and freer... with a free mind.
“Definitely nothing to do with equipment.”
While McIlroy once wrapped himself in the invincibility of youth he seems ill at ease this year, world weary, unfocused.
After shooting a 79 in the opening round of the British Open he spoke of a “brain dead” moment, stumbling through the round “unconscious”.
“I feel like I’ve been walking around out there like that for the last couple of months,” he said. “It’s a very alien feeling, something I’ve never felt before.”
McIlroy’s financial affairs have been a distraction too.
The 24-year-old terminated his contract with Dublin-based Horizon Sports Management last month to go it alone and the acrimonious break-up has now reached the courts.
McIlroy was believed to be unhappy with the commission that Horizon was charging for its services but the company says it brought him “exceptional results” in a contract that had a number of years left to run.
But it is his relationship with tennis player Wozniacki that has thrust McIlroy into the limelight like never before.
The glamour couple’s every tryst, tiff and Tweet is devoured by the world’s press, and McIlroy has tired of what OneAsia described in a news release on Tuesday as the “British media circus” around him.
The Northern Irishman says he is just looking forward to a few hours on the Korean fairways, where etiquette and introspection will be the order of the day.
“I‘m just happy to be back on the golf course and doing what I do best,” he said at the Woo Jeong Hills Country Club, south of Seoul. “It’s a nice place for a little bit of solace.”
Earlier, a terse McIlroy had brushed off questions about his relationship with Wozniacki.
“My private life is private and I would like to keep it that way,” he warned reporters.
But the media’s insatiable appetite for all things Rory McIlroy is here to stay and he will either have to learn to live with it or go somewhere the people have never heard of him.
Perhaps just across the border in North Korea? Former NBA star Dennis Rodman and regular visitor says Kim Jong-un is quite the host these days.
Editing by John O'Brien