Up until this past weekend, it had been a solid start to the 2023 season for Rory McIlroy.
Though yet to recapture his late 2022 form that saw him finish in the top 10 of his last 7 events of the year, a win at the Dubai Desert Classic in January and then a second place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational earlier this month, some would argue that his form heading into the Masters run-up shows little cause for concern.
However, with the Masters a mere 4 weeks away, does the generational Northern Irish star, who will have both eyes firmly set on completing the Major Grand Slam at Augusta early next month, have a driving issue?
A driving issue, some will put down to a change in equipment that has been much publicised over recent weeks by McIlroy himself and whilst that is certainly a problem, another connotation for driving, comes in the saying, the ‘driving force’ and that leads to his leading role in the split within the professional men’s game at this time.
Below we take a look at his role within the wider game, and where that leaves him going into the 1st Major of 2023.
McIlroy: Driving Force or Driving a Wedge in the game?
When historians look back on the last 12 months in the game in years to come, there is little doubt that alongside the likes of Greg Norman, Jay Monahan, Cameron Smith and Dustin Johnson, McIlroy’s name will feature heavily in the history books about this period in professional golf.
A vocal critic of the controversial Saudi-backed LIV Golf, the Northern Irishman has set his stall out as a leader in the golf wars, firmly on Team PGA, lamenting those that have made the move to the upstart league, to the point that it has fractured long-term friendships, including Spanish star Sergio Garcia, perhaps permanently, whilst also driving changes to the PGA product.
Going into 2023, McIlroy was arguably the hottest golfer in the planet and tied in a three-way battle with fellow European Jon Rahm and American star Scottie Scheffler for World Number 1, and whilst a win and a second place would argue that his golf is in a good place, compared to his elite rivals, has he slightly slipped behind the pair going into the Masters and why could that be the case?
Rory McIlroy says LIV Golf has forced the PGA Tour to change its “antiquated system” for the “benefit of professional golf at a high level” ⛳️⤵️#BBCGolf
— BBC SPORT NI (@BBCSPORTNI) March 7, 2023
Scheffler continues to show why he has again ascended to World Number 1, his win at the Players Championship capping an incredible last 2 years that has seen him finish Top 20 in 27 of his tournaments, winning 6 of these including his first Major at the 2022 Masters.
Spanish star Jon Rahm has himself had a stellar 2 years, starting with his first Major at the 2021 US Open and continuing on to win a further 7 tournaments, five of those in his last 11 tournaments, and probably only losing his place as World Number 1 to Scheffler due to his withdrawal through illness at the Players Championship.
For what it’s worth, whilst McIlroy hasn’t won as many tournaments in that same period, 5 in total with 2 in his last 10 starts, his consistency and longevity has enabled him to stay in touch with the two rising stars on the golf scene as of late.
Vocal Chief for Team PGA
However, in terms of the context around golf’s split, is there an argument that his role as chief of Team PGA has led to distractions in his game that has allowed both Scheffler and Rahm to separate themselves from the Northern Irishman going into the Masters?
Of course McIlroy could argue that his role as Chief of Team PGA is more important than his own personal gain at this fractured time and that consistency will give him numerous chances over the next decade to win the Grand Slam. Of course, there is also the distinct possibility of rendering this article insignificant, by triumphing at Augusta in April
There is no doubt that he is front and centre of this battle, at times his rhetoric is harsh, and cutting of certain players and figureheads. At other times, he does have a conciliatory tone to his words. When McIlroy talks, the golfing world listens.
By placing himself at the centre of the battle, as like any other mere mortal, distractions can affect performance in the work place. Contrast that to both Scheffler and to a slightly lesser extent Rahm, who have very little to say on the fractures in the game, or are at least less critical of LIV Golf and the reasons behind it, these distractions are certainly not as prevalent than for McIlroy.
Worries: Significant or Misplaced?
Last weekend’s missed cut at the Players Championship just seemed significant. As mentioned previously, we know a change in equipment is also playing its part and match those troubles with distractions and it could have a detrimental affect.
With the Masters the focus for all players, the build-up and getting your game in the right place is vital. This week the Northern Irishman is not playing at the Velspar Championships and he will be working extensively on getting his equipment issues solved on the driving range.
Could we also see a form of silence from McIlroy leading up to the Masters, in the hope of finding form heading into Augusta, particularly too because LIV Golf returns this weekend in Tuscon and then in Orlando in the week before the Masters?
Nobody will begrudge a McIlroy Grand Slam for a generational golfing talent that has done so much and will continue to do, for the game. Can he put the distractions behind him and challenge at the Masters?