Rory McIlroy’s major struggles? Surprisingly, Jack Nicklaus can relate

Rory McIlroy and Jack Nicklaus at the 2022 Open Championship.

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When Rory McIlroy sees his West Palm Beach pal Jack Nicklaus in the wake of a tough week on Tour, McIlroy has learned to brace himself, because he knows what’s likely coming: a double serving of tough love. Rory, what happened on that tee shot at 6? That three-putt at 17 really hurt you. You should have laid up on 4.

That’s just how Jack is. If there’s something on his mind, you’re probably going to hear about it, especially if he cares about you.     

“He’s not afraid to voice his opinion,” McIlroy said Wednesday from Jack’s Ohio tournament, the Memorial, “and obviously having the opinion of someone that has been so successful in our game is a great thing for the people that spend a little bit of time around him.”

Even if those opinions are sometimes hard to hear.

Much of the time McIlroy spends around Nicklaus is at the South Florida hangout to which they both belong, the Bear’s Club, which Jack and his wife Barbara founded in 1999. Rory was 10 years old then, all curls and confidence. He’s done some growing — and winning — in the years since: 23 PGA Tour titles; four major victories; de facto don of the Tour loyalists; investor in several businesses; husband of six years to Erica; father of a two-year-old daughter, Poppy.  

Sometimes the wins have come easily to McIlroy, other times not so much — especially at the tournaments that mean the most. Hard as it to believe, when McIlroy last won a major, Obama still had two years left in the Oval Office.  

Is McIlroy a lesser player than he was in 2014? That’s impossible to say with certainty, although it is safe to say he’s gone through stretches over those nine years when he has at least believed that he’s been as good as his ’14 self.

One of those heaters came in 2019, when McIlroy won twice early in the year and looked primed for a big week at the Open Championship at Portrush, in his native Northern Ireland; McIlroy was amid what he described as the “most consistent period of golf” he’d ever played. But then he quadruple-bogeyed the first hole, opened with a shocking 79 and missed the cut. Earlier this year, McIlroy was enjoying another hot spell. He came into the WM Phoenix Open on a three-wins-in-eight-starts tear and said, “I don’t feel like I’ve ever been as complete of a player as I am right now.” But two months later at the Masters? Another MC.   

And so it has gone with McIlroy. High hopes and expectations on the eve of majors followed by deflating, head-scratching performances.  

Which brings us back to Nicklaus, who on Tuesday was asked about McIlroy’s major struggles. “I don’t know really know what to make of it,” Nicklaus said. “Because he’s very confident. He works very hard at it. He’s a good student of the game. He practices a lot. I don’t know whether his is a constant lack of being able to keep that concentration for the whole thing or not, because sometimes he is the par-par-par-double-8. He does that sometimes. And I said, ‘Why, Rory? Why does that happen?’ And he doesn’t know. Nobody, when you’re doing it, you don’t know. You try to think about why you do it, but you don’t. I mean, he is, as far as talent, he’s as talented a player as there is in the game of golf. Why he hasn’t won in nine years? Kind of a mystery to a lot of people, because he is so good.”

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So good in 2014. Still so good today. So, what’s changed? For one, the relentless tug of all McIlroy’s non-golf interests and responsibilities. In that way, Rory might not be all that different from you. Perhaps you’ve agonized over finishing up a quarterly report for your boss, or going to your kid’s Little League game? Or maybe you’ve turned down a promotion, because you knew it would mean less time with your loved ones? Players at McIlroy’s stage of life constantly face these same questions, only instead of reports and spreadsheets, their work duties are gym visits and range sessions.

”It’s something that I’ve really had to juggle for quite a few years,” McIlroy said. “It’s making sure that I spend enough time on my golf and on my career that I feel like I’m ready to play tournaments like this. But then at the same time that I spend enough time with my wife and my daughter so they actually know who I am. I’m not saying that I don’t, but there’s that balance of, you know, it’s time management, it’s just getting your priorities in order.”

Which again brings us back to Nicklaus. During the height of his powers, Nicklaus never experienced a major drought like McIlroy has. But he did hit a fallow period. After winning his seventh major at the 1967 U.S. Open, Nicklaus didn’t win another major until the 1970 Open Championship.

“I was playing all right,” Nicklaus said. “But I would say I was having too much fun. We had three kids by then and fun with my kids. And I practiced a little bit, but I didn’t practice like I probably should have practiced. Golf is the number two thing to me. My family was by far number one. And that was the first thing I wanted to do and be part of. For me to play golf was — golf’s a game. A game that I actually, I got decent at, but it was, you know, it was something though that didn’t dominate my life.”

Decent at, LOL. McIlroy’s feelings about the game are eerily similar. When you hear him and Nicklaus speak on work-life balance, their words are virtually interchangeable.

“Look, I would love to sit here and say that I’m just a golfer and that’s all I focus on, but that’s not reality,” McIlroy said Wednesday. “So it’s just about managing your time the right way so that you can, you can continue to hone your craft and make sure that when you turn up to events — I think that’s when you see players get to the latter stages of their career why they play less. Because I think it just takes a little bit more time to get ready for the events that you play. So, yeah, but that’s life, right. I think that the interests and everything that I’ve got going on in my life right now at 34 are because of the things that I did when I was 23, 25, 27.”

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It’s a thorny dilemma to solve: how to simultaneously be player of the year and father/husband of the year? How to at once feed your golfing soul while finding time to absorb life’s other wonders? How to be a world beater while helping to better the world (not to mention the future of your own Tour in the face of a deep-pocketed upstart competitor)?   

Nicklaus fought many of these emotions. Until he didn’t. Of rediscovering his major-winning ways in 1970, he said, “I sort of focused myself to go back to work and try to work a little harder at it.”

McIlroy, Nicklaus says, will do the same.

“Rory is going to wake up one morning and say, ‘Hey, I better get on the stick here and start winning some more majors,’ because he’s certainly going to win some more,” Nicklaus said. “I can’t believe that he’s not. And sometimes we all have to focus, focus on what we have to do and so forth to get there.”

One of McIlroy’s lowest moments in the majors came at the 2011 Masters, when he took a four-shot lead into the fourth round — and shot 80. The golf world seemed to mourn for McIlroy more than he did for himself. A couple of months later, Nicklaus bumped into McIlroy on the range at the Memorial. As Nicklaus recalls it, their conversation went something like this:  

“Rory, what in the world? Did you learn anything from what you did?”

(Ed note: There’s that tough love thing again.)

“I think so, but I’m not sure.”

“Well, I hope you did, because you’re going to need to apply it here in a couple weeks at the U.S. Open.”

At that U.S. Open — at Congressional — McIlroy played like a golfer possessed, steamrolling the field by eight.

“I dropped him a note after,” Nicklaus continued, “because I didn’t see him, and I said, You obviously learned something from Augusta, but more important, did you learn anything from why you won? It’s one thing to learn [from] why you lose, but it’s also important to learn why you won. You put those two things together and if you understand them both firmly, then you’re going to win a lot of golf tournaments. Rory was really good about that, that time in his life.”

And this time in his life?

Questions will linger until McIlroy raises major trophy No. 5. His next chance comes in two weeks at Los Angeles Country Club, site of the 2023 U.S. Open.

Alan Bastable

Golf.com Editor

As GOLF.com’s executive editor, Bastable is responsible for the editorial direction and voice of one of the game’s most respected and highly trafficked news and service sites. He wears many hats — editing, writing, ideating, developing, daydreaming of one day breaking 80 — and feels privileged to work with such an insanely talented and hardworking group of writers, editors and producers. Before grabbing the reins at GOLF.com, he was the features editor at GOLF Magazine. A graduate of the University of Richmond and the Columbia School of Journalism, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and foursome of kids.

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