Imagine Golf Blogs

McIlroy can afford a Slip

It may be a different time, but the media will go easy on Rory for now

Posted Mar 05, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece


When Rory McIlroy next has the opportunity of chatting with his golfing mentor, Jack Nicklaus, he should ask the great man about his relationship with the media during the formative years of his tournament career.  The answer would be certain to shock the 23-year-old world number one.

In fact McIlroy could further broaden this fact-finding mission by arranging a chat with Arnold Palmer on the same subject.  Come to think of it, he could even kill two birds with the same stone by adding Arnie’s Invitational Tournament on March 21st to 24th to his pre-Masters commitments, by way of strengthening competitive workouts that have been decidedly thin so far this year.

Palmer would be able to tell him of the remarkable relationships he established with golf-writers on both sides of the Atlantic.  He thought so highly of Philadelphia scribe, Bob Drum, that he gave him a seat in his private aircraft on a transatlantic trip for the Canada Cup at Portmarnock in 1960, followed by the Centenary Open at St Andrews.

That was a time when Palmer also developed a close friendship with Pat Ward-Thomas, the peerless golf correspondent of what was then the “Manchester Guardian” and a regular contributor to “Country Life” magazine in the UK.  I can recall Palmer telling me of how they and their respective wives played bridge together.  And how Ward-Thomas, a World War II pilot with the RAF until shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans, had flown one of Palmer's planes.

It was a relationship which demanded enormous trust on both sides.  But those were gentler times, very different from the current frenzy which we witnessed in all its worst excesses after McIlroy walked off PGA National midway through his second round in the Honda Classic last Friday.

Nicklaus could also talk of bridge rubbers with Ward-Thomas.  And poker sessions with other British scribes during the 1960s after he had become familiar with these shores as a competitor in the Walker Cup and the British Amateur Championship.  Indeed the Bear also saw fit to play a friendly nine holes with Ward-Thomas who later wrote a memorable piece on the experience, without a hint of indiscretion.

Trust was the key.  And when reflecting on his relationship with newspapermen through the course of a lengthy and productive career, Nicklaus maintained that none of them had let him down.  Confidences were not broken, nor was any advantage taken of what would be considered these days as unthinkable access.

Those were times when the popular press in Britain, as exemplified by the “Daily Mirror”, “Daily Mail” and “Daily Express”, reported on golf and golfers, without looking beyond what a player did on the course.  By the 1970s, however, things had begun to change.  That was a time when stories about international stars like Tony Jacklin began to move from the sports pages into the social pages.  Later, Nick Faldo was placed under an even more severe spotlight when he took over from Jacklin as Britain’s top golfer.

McIlroy, of course, is a product of the internet era, where websites with a voracious appetite seem to record the activities of leading players almost on an hourly basis.  Gone are the respectful arrangements between scribes and players which characterised the world golfing scene of half a century ago.  Instead, a tell-tale photograph of the player munching happily on a sandwich, can be produced miraculously within minutes of his asserting that he walked off the course because of a very painful wisdom tooth.

No sooner had McIlroy departed PGA National last Friday than he realised the error of his actions.  But just in case, a million opinions from all areas of the media, left him in no doubt on the matter.  And it’s a price he knows he must pay in his determination to do things Rory’s way.  His move from International Sports Management to Horizon Sports 18 months ago, emphasised his determination to be in total control of his own activities.  And if his withdrawal from the Honda was slammed as ham-fisted, he cannot be surprised.

Still, this remarkable sportsman retains a crucial edge in his relationship with the media: he happens to be a really nice young man who is widely admired as such.  So he can afford the odd stumble from grace without losing his mass appeal.  And perhaps the next time he has the need to extricate himself from a hole, he will decline to speak until he has a clear mind on what to say.  Better still, he could let his PR people do the talking.     

- Dermot Gilleece

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