Rory McIlroy’s inability to make it to the Masters weekend for the second time in three years has been one of the biggest shocks of this year’s tournament. And one of the hardest to explain.
The Northern Irishman arrived in Augsburg in excellent form. McIlroy ranked no. 2 in the world earlier in the week, fresh off his third-place finish at the WGC Match Play. He also seemed confident, citing his spectacular final round of 64 last year which lifted him to second overall and which he says caused him to shake off the Augusta demons that have plagued him since his 2011 slump. The bookies and pundits agreed that the 33-year-old was well placed to finally break his Masters duck, setting up McIlroy as joint favourite, with Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler.
Suffice to say, McIlroy never left. An opening day 70 was followed by a desperately disappointing 77 which saw him go out mid-stage.
It became a sad family story of heartbreak for McIlroy who won four majors at the age of 25 but has now failed to win one for more than eight and a half years. But perhaps most baffling of all is that no one, including McIlroy, really seems to know what he’s doing wrong. McIlroy hasn’t spoken since leaving him. He declined to speak to the media following his second round and has since retired from this week’s RBC Heritage. But that just added noise. Is the problem technical? Is it psychological? What else can one of the most talented players of this or any generation do to get out of his main rut?
Dave Alred, the performance coach famous for transforming Jonny Wilkinson into the best kicker in world rugby, but also celebrated for his work with golfers such as Francesco Molinari and Luke Donald, has some thoughts, even if he absolutely wants to clarify them before going into them. which is not criticizing McIlroy. How could he, he says, when he doesn’t quite know what McIlroy is doing in private. “From the outside it’s very, very difficult to make observations about an individual’s preparation,” he points out. “I would never criticize a player if I don’t know or have detailed knowledge of exactly how it works.” Nor, adds Alred, is he throwing his hat in the ring to coach McIlroy (although he suspects he wouldn’t say “no” if asked).
What can he offer, based on his years of work with the likes of Wilkinson and Irish fly-half Johnny Sexton, and with Donald – who reached No. 1 in the world under his tutelage – and Molinari, who established a record Ryder Cup points and Open win during their time together, is talk of performing under pressure.
For Alred, it all comes back to practice. Practice properly and the mental side will develop along with it. And with “correctly” Alred doesn’t mean just entering the hours.
“Many athletes work hard,” says Alred, who has written a book, The Pressure Principle, on just this topic. “They hit thousands of balls and spend hours at the range. But the practice has to be much more focused than that. Let’s say I take a practice lap and then spend four hours at the range, I’m working hard, right? But am I really working hard? I may work hard physically, but what was the purpose of my practice?
Alred is very much of the tough love school. He insists the practice should be “ugly” and uncomfortable for the player. “The practice should have similar consequences to tournament golf,” he says. “Furthermore, goals should be dictated to the player rather than negotiated with him and results recorded. Because that’s how it is when you play golf in a tournament, right? You are not in total control. You don’t know exactly which hand you will be dealt. You just have to deal with whatever is thrown at you. And then you have to own it.
Notoriously intense, Alred’s training techniques aren’t for everyone. Nor many athletes can hack them for long. Molinari burned brightly while they were together, but after the pandemic and a move to Los Angeles, the Italian dropped to No. 135 in the official world golf rankings. Alred, however, is adamant that if the player is fully committed and is ready to put in the time, it will lead to success. It’s getting the athlete to commit that is the hard part.
“Nobody wants green bananas anymore,” she says, looking for another analogy. “They want quick fixes. If you tell someone it will take a year to really get results, they’ll say, “Oh, I really want this by next week.”
“But these things take time. When working with Molinari, there were times when I could almost predict the type of tournament he was going to have based on the data from the two weeks of training leading up to the tournament. But it took a long time to get to that level. It was probably a year before things really started to make a difference. Not many have the motivation. Why should they? They are already millionaires.
But what about McIlroy specifically? He has a game that others would die for. It’s as professional as they come. He no longer plays for the money. And he already works with a sports psychologist in Bob Rotella. What can it do more?
Again, Alred doesn’t claim to know exactly how McIlroy prepares. “It’s so hard to comment when you’re not in that player’s infield,” he says. “I know I’ve been on the other side, both with England Rugby and elsewhere, and people from the outside make assumptions [about what you’re doing] and you think ‘You couldn’t be further from the truth’. So I don’t want to fall into that trap.
“I know there’s been quite a buildup [to this year’s Masters] with the whole LIV fallout, and that massive promotion with Tiger Woods with TaylorMade, and the things the PGA is doing to get good players to make more money.
“But in my experience, certainly with most athletes, success boils down to a combination of technique and practice.
“A lot of people talk about the mind game and I agree it’s really powerful. You have to be in the right mindset, you have to have a tip attitude and be mentally strong.
“But that mindset should come from knowing what you’ve got [in practice]. And the practice is supposed to be bad.