Even if Rory McIlroy doesn’t miraculously turn his game around over the next few weeks, just as he did last season, 2013 should not be considered a failure for the 24-year-old Northern Irishman. It should simply be a learning experience.
It’s what McIlroy takes away from this experience that will likely determine his future in the game of golf.
By this point, McIlroy probably knows it is not intelligent to mess with a good thing. McIlroy won two majors and reached the top of the World Golf Rankings while using Titleist equipment. He then decided to pursue the big bucks through a long-term Nike contract, and he has been struggling with his equipment all season. McIlroy’s switch to Nike is by no means the only reason he has struggled in 2013, but it is certainly one of the reasons.
McIlroy has likely also learned that in this modern era of professional golf, no one can survive on talent alone. The best players in the world work incredibly hard in order to perform at very high levels.
Hardly touching a club for long periods of time during the offseason, taking two-week vacations to South Beach during the season, partying, spending time watching tennis tournaments while your game deteriorates—that simply isn't going to cut it at this level.
Needless to say, those off-the-course activities may be appealing to a 24-year-old multimillionaire, and who are we to tell McIlroy how he should or should not live his life? But speaking strictly in golf terms, if McIlroy continues to take this same lackadaisical approach to his game, he will have a very difficult time competing against the best players in the world.
McIlroy has probably learned that jet-setting takes a toll on everyone—even a healthy, energetic 24-year-old. Flying halfway across the world to watch your girlfriend play tennis for two days and then flying back for a golf tournament is probably not the best way to physically and mentally prepare for a tournament.
McIlroy is young and in love. We've all been there, and this is just another learning experience for McIlroy. He is pursuing an extremely long-distance (more like a global) relationship with professional tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, and he is still learning how to maintain this relationship in a way that does not affect his own career.
McIlroy has undoubtedly also learned that biting off more than he can chew with sponsor commitments can detrimentally affect his game.
After missing the cut at the Irish Open, McIlroy told the media, "I have got a couple of commitments next week and the week after as well. If I didn't have those couple of things to do over the next couple of weeks, I probably would have added an event."
As a result McIlroy was unable to add another competitive event to his schedule leading up to the Open Championship—where he missed yet another cut.
With sponsors, McIlroy once again needs to learn how to balance what can be described as a "chicken and egg" situation. Yes, McIlroy’s sponsors are paying him big bucks and demand some of his time as a result of their investment in him, but these sponsors are also only interested in McIlroy because of his success on the golf course. If McIlroy loses his ability to perform on the course, his sponsors won't want to touch him with a six-foot belly putter.
Again, this is all a learning experience for McIlroy. While ardent golf fans might have been following McIlroy’s career since he shot a three-under-par 68 in the opening round of the 2007 Open Championship as an 18-year-old amateur, most of the sports world had never heard of McIlroy until a couple of years ago. But two major championships and numerous other worldwide wins have turned McIlroy into a global sports superstar and probably one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet.
This is a huge change for any young man to go through.
Guys like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jack Nicklaus, etc. all had a lot of attention placed on them throughout their amateur and college careers, so they were probably better equipped to handle the pressure that inevitably accompanied their success at the professional level. McIlroy, on the other hand, went from a relatively unknown European Tour player to a global golf superstar in just a matter of 24 months, and he is only now beginning to realize the challenges that accompany this kind of success.
On the golf course, 2013 has without question been a disastrous year for McIlroy. But it’s what McIlroy takes away from this experience that will ultimately determine whether 2013 was just a bump in the road or whether this is the start of some kind of descent into David Duval Land.