By Iain Carter
The look was reproachful as Rory McIlroy stared down a seemingly innocent question during the British Masters last week.
“Are you more relaxed knowing that you have a long holiday around the corner?” came the enquiry from a journalistic colleague. “No it’s not going to be a holiday,” McIlroy replied. “It is going to be hard work.”
Once the Dunhill Links is completed in Scotland this week we will not see the former world number one until the New Year.
It means big events such as the WGC HSBC Championship in Shanghai and the climax to the Race to Dubai will be played in the absence of the man who can still be considered the most exciting golfer on the planet.
Even in a year when he has missed two large chunks through injury, McIlroy needs a break. The rib injury, which has undermined his ability to practice as hard as he would have liked, needs to be heeled once and for all. So that is the first objective in this sabbatical where he will also undergo allergy and blood tests to try to determine causes for recent periods of lethargy.
And it is the absence of his trademark mojo through much of the summer that most graphically illustrates the need for this break. While he needs to sort out his body, the mind needs clearing as well.
Ten years on tour have taken their toll, even though the vast majority of them have been hugely successful. With four majors in the locker and millions of pounds in the bank, McIlroy has achieved plenty in the first 28 years of his life.
But it has all been done in the public eye. The demise of Tiger Woods has made the man from Holywood in Northern Ireland the focal point of the game for much of the last decade.
Naturally engaging, McIlroy finds it harder to shun the spotlight than Woods did when he was at the height of his powers. It must be draining, though, to keep it all in proportion.
Then there is the relentless travel – albeit in luxurious style, as well as sponsor commitments. What we see at golf tournaments barely scratches the surface regarding the hectic nature of a top pro’s lifestyle.
And players of his stature are never short of offers to play tournaments. Arriving upon a schedule is an art form, particularly for golfers with feet in both rival PGA and European Tour camps.
The 2017 PGA Tour season finished on September 24. The next campaign begins on October 5 – that is an eleven day close season.
Meanwhile the European Tour finishes in Dubai on November 19 and the next season begins only four days later in Hong Kong. No wonder McIlroy is creating his own down time.
That has been one of his themes throughout this year. He would like a more coordinated global calendar rather than the current relentless hamster wheel of professional golf.
One model might be something similar to Formula One, with the world’s best players playing a unified international schedule.
“I just think with where golf is and how the world is so much smaller now, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be events in Europe and why there shouldn’t be events in the States, but for everyone to work together a little bit more,” McIlroy told me. “Look, I don’t know how it would work. It was just me throwing an idea out there and me throwing a thought out there. “There’s so many moving parts to it and it’s so complicated; but maybe one day.”
A coordinated golfing circus, featuring the top players traveling the world would be attractive to fans and make elite golf much easier to understand. It would not struggle for sponsorship either – but what about the levels below this elevated strata?
Currently both of the main tours put on simultaneous events worth millions of pounds, euro or dollars which offer a chance, in several weeks, for more than 300 players to make a lucrative living. Any form of streamlining could limit earning opportunities and chances for career development for those not quite at the highest level. Such is the strength in depth of talent in the world game, there are countless golfers who fall into this category, desperate to make the most of chances they earn on the European or PGA Tours.
That’s what McIlroy did so spectacularly well when he was starting out. It is why he holds such a powerful voice in the game, why he’s a multiple major champion and a multi, multi-millionaire.
It’s also why he is able to press the career reset button, take time away and lay the foundations for the rest of his career.
Just don’t call it a holiday.