It shouldn’t be an outlandish thing to say but McIlroy choked last Thursday

Tipping point: the Northern Ireland golfer folded under the pressure at Portrush

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy during his first round of the Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club. Photograph:  Reuters/Ian Walton

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy during his first round of the Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club. Photograph: Reuters/Ian Walton

 

The first golfer who ever told me the truth was Jean van de Velde. He may have been the last one too. Maybe even the last sportsperson, full stop.

It was at the K Club in 2004, and he was playing in the European Open. Or at least he had been – by the time we sat down for a chat he was four shots outside the Friday cut line and his next stop was the airport.

The idea had been for us to do a piece on where his life was now, coming up on the five-year anniversary of his last-hole meltdown in Carnoustie. The 2004 British Open was a fortnight away but while the elite of the game was heading to Troon to play in it, Van de Velde hadn’t qualified. In 12 tournaments that season he had earned just under €50,000. A couple of Thursday-Friday 76s in the K Club wasn’t going to bump that out any.

He didn’t have to stick around to talk about it, of course. But he was a gentleman to his spikes, and once he had caught a waiter’s attention in the clubhouse and ordered a glass of red, he was perfectly fine about it all. No, he didn’t mind talking about Carnoustie. Yes, he’d been asked every conceivable question about it.

“But don’t worry,” he smiled. “I might not have given every conceivable answer…”

It had been his fifth missed cut in seven tournaments so on the basis that there is no such thing as a stupid question, I asked why. He launched into the usual breakdown of his game – he wasn’t hitting his irons how he wanted, he wasn’t putting well, all that jazz.

“I probably gave up a bit out there today as well.”

“How do you mean?”

“On the back nine. I knew I wasn’t going to make the cut so I just played until I got to the clubhouse.”

It was a jarring thing to hear him say. Every week in every sport you see players giving up once they know they’re beaten. They reach that threshold where hope gets swallowed up by reality and they phone it in the rest of the way. But you almost never hear them cop to it – and definitely not without being put on the spot and asked directly.

No drama

Van de Velde just laid it out there, straight up and matter-of-fact. He gave up. No drama, just how it was.

Even now, 15 years later, I’m not sure I’ve come across another player in any sport who has said it out straight like that. It’s one of the great taboos of sport. You try your best always and even when you don’t, you let on that you did. And woe betide anyone who accuses you of anything less.

One of the fascinating things about golf is that there is a bigger, greater taboo. One with which Van de Velde isn’t just familiar but pretty much synonymous. Google “golf” and “choke” and his name will always come to the fore. If each sport sent a contender along to the Choke Olympics, golf would send Van de Velde’s 18th hole at Carnoustie in 1999. It’s the choke all other chokers are thankful for, the one that takes all the heat.

Yet even now, even blessed with all the equanimity in the world, Van de Velde still won’t call it a choke. Last summer he did an interview with a Freakonomics podcast entitled Why We Choke Under Pressure (And How Not To). He was a willing and helpful subject all the way through and yet when choking was mentioned he wasn’t having it.

“I think we need to ask the definition of choke,” he said. “If you’re hitting a shot down the right side, and hitting the grandstand was, as I said, about three acres of land there. I exaggerate, but there was plenty of room. Any other given day, oh that’s just crazy, did I hit it straight left out of bounds?

“Did I have time to choke, when I arrived on the 72nd hole? Well, I think I had two days to choke. So, I think as I said, there’s one shot that I would play again, and that would be my third one, not the second, but the third one.

“Can you say that’s choking? No, I would say that’s… when I was facing that challenge, because it crossed my mind to hit it sideways instead of trying to get over the Burn. That could be a choke there. You know, I would say, yeah, I did what I could. Without any doubt. So a choke? You know, I wouldn’t call that a choke, without a doubt. I would probably use a different word, but certainly not that one.”

Circumstances

But why not? A choke is a choke. Everyone knows one when they see one. Just as everyone who watches sport can pick out a player who has given up at 100 paces. The only difference is that when you give up, you make the decision yourself. When you choke it’s because circumstances have made the decision for you. Van de Velde had no hesitation in saying he gave up. But choking? No, definitely not.

Rory McIlroy choked last Thursday. It shouldn’t be an outlandish thing to say that out loud. The American golf pundit Brandel Chamblee took the usual amount of heat over the weekend for saying as much on Thursday night but what else could you reasonably call it?

McIlroy folded under the pressure of playing the British Open in Portrush. It was a mental collapse, manifested in driving a tee shot he’s hit hundreds of times in his life out of bounds on the first and three-putting from nowhere on the 16th. That’s what choking is – doing the stupid thing because you’re not thinking clearly enough to do the right thing.

If Jean van de Velde can’t admit to choking two decades later it’s unlikely McIlroy will either now. It’s bound to come up in Memphis at the WGC event this week and presumably everyone will dance around it and find a million ways not to use the C-word.

But golf is a test of your mentality. That’s the beauty of it. Every golfer admits to driving badly or putting like a drain without the slightest sense of shame. It should be the same when it comes to the mental test. You fail it one week, you pass it the next. That’s the game.

McIlroy choked last week. Everyone knows it. He’d be doing himself and his sport a big favour by copping to it and killing the taboo once and for all.

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