Everyone thinks they can read an athlete’s body language. The hurried, anxious walk to take a penalty kick; the nervous shuffling at the batsman’s crease; stepping away from the putt at a vital moment; the first boxer to drop his eyes at the weigh-in.
And sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong. The penalty goes in, the batsman makes a hundred, the putt drops like a stone, the shy fighter becomes the champion.
One thing we can all agree on, however, is this: Basil Fawlty is not a good look for anyone. Bent double, anguished, agonised: that is a sure sign things will not go well. Rory McIlroy would like it to be thought that he is absolutely at peace with his golf game, but every now and then the mask slips. It did on the seventh at Royal St George’s on Friday.
Rory McIlroy’s body language told the full story on day two of the Open in Sandwich, Kent
This year’s Open course is a par 70. It contains just two par five holes. Par fives are the professionals’ friend. Every tournament pro’s eyes light up when he sees one. They almost all have the game to reach the green in two on a good day, or with a following wind. So par fives are opportunities.
A run of 15 golfers at the par five seventh on Friday — game 30 to game 34 — shot 10 birdies, one eagle and no bogeys. Par fives are where the pros make hay.
And McIlroy was in position A as he stood over his second shot on the seventh.
Heart of the fairway, aiming for the heart of the green. Here was the chance he needed to get his momentum going.
So when he pushed his second shot into a bunker short and right of the target, his physical collapse, almost in stages like a demolished cooling tower, revealed the frustration he works so hard to hide.
The Ulsterman set out with hopes of building on his solid opening round score on Friday
However, McIlroy was a picture of anguish as he failed to make headway in a frustrating round
It was a similar move to the one John Cleese devised for that moment in The Psychiatrist when Basil Fawlty’s impotent fury at his circumstances becomes overwhelming.
Bent double, falling to his haunches, covering his head with his jacket, he ends up on the floor. Arsene Wenger — similar physique — came close on occasions during his last days at Arsenal. So, too, did McIlroy.
Slowly, he sank to his knees in disbelief at what he had done, the club stretched out flat on the grass in front of him. Later, he would try to give the impression that golf was scarcely important in his life.
It is hard to believe this. Friday was close to perfect on the Kent coast. The sun shone, the wind — certainly when McIlroy was out — was barely a factor. Several players came close to the course record. Collin Morikawa started at three under, finished nine under. Emiliano Grillo started level par, finished six under.
It was a day when a player of McIlroy’s talent could have made real inroads.
The 32-year-old’s frustrations boiled over as he let slip his mask of peace on the course
McIlroy’s demeanour was akin to Basil Fawlty
Instead, he started level par, and finished there as well. It was the round that never was; the man who wasn’t there. And one senses McIlroy knew it, too.
He got a little run going at mid-point, erased a few early bogeys, got his numbers down to below par. Then at the par three 16th, he steered his ball from the tee into a pot bunker guarding the green to the right. McIlroy stood, then bowed his head, and put his hands on his knees.
He just couldn’t get ahead. He splashed out from the sand perfectly, then gave the shot up with his putter anyway.
On the next, he missed a two-foot putt: another bogey. It was hard to see how he could recover from a day of standing still.
He would make the cut here, but little more.
And sometimes we read too much in an individual’s body language. On Friday morning, one headline connected a troublesome butterfly putting him off a shot with McIlroy’s wider jitters.
Yet try to hit a golf ball with a butterfly fluttering around your head. Try to concentrate for more than two seconds on anything, in fact. Butterflies are gorgeous lunatics, their patterns of movement would break any man’s concentration.
Something appears wrong with McIlroy after a dismal round in resplendent conditions
One might as well argue that McIlroy’s skittishness around a herd of stampeding elephants or a disturbed hornets’ nest revealed his inner turmoil. Yet something is wrong, of that there is little doubt. McIlroy should not be looking back close to seven years now at his last major win. He should not be looking up at a ballpark 50 names on the Open leaderboard, in favourable conditions.
The professional view is that it is McIlroy’s wedge shots, his approaches to the greens, that let him down. In a sentence it seems a small adjustment; in reality, it is proving as vast as the dunes around this course.
‘It’s close, I guess that’s the thing,’ said McIlroy. ‘I feel like I could have squeezed. If I was really on my game and sharp with how I’ve played the last two days, I probably could have been six or seven under.
‘So it’s close — just not close enough. That’s the way it’s been for the last couple of months and I’ve just got to keep working on it and persisting, just keep my head down and keep going.’
McIlroy says he is not trying too hard as he searches for an end to his seven-year major hoodoo
Was he trying too hard? ‘Not at all,’ McIlroy insisted. ‘I’ve got four of them. Jeez, look, I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I get to do what I love for a living. I have a beautiful family. My life is absolutely perfect at the minute. I want for nothing, so it’s not a case of trying too hard for sure.’ It felt, almost, as if he protested too much. After all, it is possible to have a lovely family, a lovely life, and a successful career in the rear-view mirror.
It is possible that McIlroy’s protestations are a defensive mechanism because a different strategy — speaking openly about his desire to win the US Masters and complete a career Grand Slam — seemed to backfire and burden him with desire and expectation. Might he grow equally impatient of a Zen approach?
‘No, not really,’ McIlroy countered. ‘Look, it’s fine. I go back two years and I was walking away after Friday’s round in this tournament. So I’m not like that at all.
‘It was nice to guarantee some weekend golf. I’ve just got to try to make the most of that.’
Yet anyone can guarantee weekend golf. That’s what amateurs do. Book a time, find a buddy, off you go. McIlroy didn’t just play weekend golf. He competed. He challenged. He was one of those names, one of those guys whose presence lit up a leaderboard.
It is why, as hard as he tries to convince us of his ease, Rory McIlroy, weekend golfer, will never be a convincing look.