Jack Nicklaus Has Some Sage Advice for Rory McIlroy

Fred AltvaterContributor IIJuly 5, 2013

Jack and Barbara Nicklaus are in London for the Wimbledon Championships
Jack and Barbara Nicklaus are in London for the Wimbledon ChampionshipsMike Hewitt/Getty Images

Jack Nicklaus is in jolly old England for the Wimbledon Championships, where Will Gray of GolfTalkCentral.com reported that Nicklaus joined the Live at Wimbledon crew for a quick television interview with his friend, and ex-professional tennis champion, Mats Wilander.

The conversation finally got around to golf and the state of Rory McIlroy’s nonexistent golf game.

“He’s been doing sort of other things, and now he’s back and wanting to play golf again, and he’s struggling,” Nicklaus said of McIlroy

Bobby Jones, Bruce Lietzke, Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker are about the only golfers who have ever been able to play professional golf part time and be relatively successful at it.

McIlroy is not having the finest year thus far. He just missed his second cut of the year on the European Tour at the Irish Open. His previous cut came in the first event of the year in Abu Dhabi. In between, as the defending champion at the Honda Classic, he walked off the course with a toothache.

Then again, the way he was playing in the second round of the Honda Classic would have made my teeth hurt, too.

In 10 starts on the PGA Tour this year, he has four top-10 finishes with one runner-up finish. He has earned $1.4 million and is No. 45 in the FedEx Cup standings.

For the average touring professional, that is not a bad year, but for the No. 2-ranked player in the world, these numbers are not very good.

Golf balls now break the laws of physics and resist side spin. Golf clubs are made of space-age composite metals and can launch balls over 300 yards. But one tenet of being a champion on the PGA Tour is as true today as it was in the day of Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus: You have to want it and be hungry.

You have to want to beat the other guy’s brains out on the golf course and laugh about it later in the locker room.

In his interview with Wilander, Nicklaus added:

Before, he [McIlroy] was grinding, grinding, grinding to get where he wanted. Now, all of a sudden, he’s had a little bit more leisurely, and he’s got a little less pressure. You need the pressure. I think it’s great to have pressure. I enjoyed it every time I walked onto a golf course.

With a Nike contract rumored to be in the $250 million range formalized over the winter and now in his bank account, Rory is not going to feel the pressure of earning a buck for a while.

Hogan, a child of the “Great Depression,” was always afraid of losing his game and not being able to earn another dollar. Palmer wanted to beat the other guy so badly that it didn’t matter how much money he earned.

Nicklaus needed to keep proving he was the best and wanted to win more major championships, while Woods just doesn’t know anything else in life but to win golf tournaments.

What is McIlroy playing for right now? What gets him motivated to fly to another city, sleep in another strange bed, play another golf tournament and try to win another trophy?

Championship golf demands total and unlimited focus to the task at hand. That means hitting the gym every day—no matter how you feel or what city you happen to be in. And slapping hundreds of golf balls on the range every day must be routine.

When a golfer hits the golf course, the repetition and confidence gained from practice will not allow a shot to intimidate them.

When a golfer has not put in the work or practice prior to competing, he loses focus and confidence. He may not be 100 percent committed to the shot. He loses his edge and the need to win.

Detractors of Woods do not take into account the large contract he received from Nike early in his career while he still worked to improve his game and his fitness to become No 1. The game we see Woods play today is a result of the thousands hours of work he has put in throughout his 17-year career.

McIlroy just turned 24 at the beginning of May. He has a pocket full of money, a jet on call and a beautiful tennis-playing girlfriend.

Life is good.

As Rocky Balboa’s trainer, Mickey, tells him when Rocky is trying to get the title back, "You gotta stay hungry!"

With McIlroy’s bank account and big Nike contract, I don’t think he is going to go hungry any time soon.

McIlroy must find the spark to want to win again. He has to feel so embarrassed by playing poorly that it drives him back to the gym, driving range and practice green.

Nicklaus is simply trying to tell the kid that those are the places that championship golfers are really made.