MIAMI (Reuters) - If one thing was clear from Rory McIlroy’s meeting with the media on Wednesday it was that five days of constant criticism and speculation have not embittered the 23-year-old Northern Irishman.
McIlroy’s appeal, alongside his outstanding talent on the golf course, has been his genuine and open approach and what admirers might call a boyish charm, or those less generous would term naivety.
Facing questions in public for the first time since his walk-out, McIlroy kept his cool, made his apology and promises and did so in his usual open and sincere manner.
The only indication that the fallout from his mid-round walk-off at the Honda Classic last week had angered McIlroy was a twitter exchange with Irish pop singer Ronan Keating on Tuesday.
McIlroy used the abbreviation ‘FTB’ in a tweet which was taken by many as a reference to a Keating tattoo which states ‘F- The Begrudgers’.
“It’s a little private joke between friends, and something I probably can’t divulge on live TV,” said McIlroy when asked on Wednesday about the tweet.
Of course, it was hardly private when posted to his 1.5 million followers on the social media site and the fact that the Northern Irishman deleted the reference indicates that this, like his withdrawal at PGA National, was something that would have benefited from a few minute’s calm reflection.
But, as McIlroy’s many friends on the PGA tour have been quick to point out, the world number one is only 23 and he certainly is not the only young man to have posted something inappropriate on the internet.
Young as he is, McIlroy knows though that his behavior is scrutinized more as the world’s number one golfer and that, whatever the debates about the value of athletes as role models in life, he certainly is expected to set an example on the course.
“There’s no excuse for quitting and it doesn’t set a good example for the kids watching me, trying to emulate what I do,” he said.
“It wasn’t good for a whole lot of reasons, for the tournaments, the people coming out watching me. I feel like I let a lot of people down with what I did last week, and you know, for that, I am very sorry.”
His apology will surely be accepted by the golfing world, including a media which McIlroy, tweeted barbs aside, says he is keen to maintain a good relationship with.
”I don’t want it to be that way where there is friction between me and the press because at the end of the day, you guys are here because you’re reporting what we do on the golf course all over the world.
“So it’s not like I want that to be a strained relationship, because it’s going to be a long one, I hope,” he said.
Now that the storm has blown over, the attention on McIlroy will turn to whether he can get out of his mini-rut in form and the broader issue of whether he becomes better able to cope with pressure.
McIlroy said his walk-off had much to do with a culmination of his swing troubles and feeling the pressure of living up to his outstanding season last year where he won five tournaments, including his second major at the PGA Championship.
“I think it was a buildup of everything. I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform and I’ve been working so hard and not really getting much out of it,” he said.
“It was a buildup of high expectations from myself coming off the back of such a great year last year, and wanting to continue that form into this year and not being able to do it. I just sort of let it all get to me.”
The attention and pressure is not, however, going to dissipate.
On Thursday, in the first round of the elite WGC-Cadillac Championship tournament at Doral, McIlroy is paired with Tiger Woods.
So forget any ideal, quiet, solid first round, working away at his swing.
However, the Northern Irishman is hoping that having let all his problems into the public arena, he will now at least be able to play with some freedom.
”I actually think in the long run, Friday will be a blessing in disguise. It just sort of released a valve and all that pressure that I’ve been putting on myself just went away.
“I was like, just go out and have fun. It’s not life or death out there. It’s only a game. I had sort of forgotten that this year.”
Editing by John Mehaffey