Tiger Woods goes in for incessant needling of Rory McIlroy and other players who make it into his inner circle, and that’s just fine with the heir apparent as long as the teasing remains playful.
Where McIlroy gets off the trash-talking train is when hurtful words, bordering on verbal abuse, lead to stress-related illnesses that may have caused Jonathan Martin to quit the Miami Dolphins and England cricketer Jonathan Trott to leave his team at the start of the international Ashes Test series of matches between England and Australia.
McIlroy acknowledged concern for Trott, who cited stress-related illness for walking out on his squad on Monday after an Aussie opponent termed Trott’s performance in the first game as "weak," according to Reuters.
"I think with those boys the sledging this year has probably been a bit worse than other years as well," McIlroy observed, referring to the practice of insulting or verbally intimidating opposing players to gain an on-field advantage.
"It looks like they're having a go at each other after every ball," he said. "It would be really tough to take that for however long you're out there for. They seem to really get at each other's throat whenever they're in there."
While he cited a toothache as his reason for ditching the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic in March, and later issued a convincing apology for his actions, McIlroy, more than many, may have a particularly empathetic view toward Trott’s decision to decamp. Indeed, his remarks may shed some light as well on the soul-sucking pressures that have taken their toll on the two-time major champion after he switched clubs and weathered several off-course distractions that have resulted in, to date, a winless 2013 season.
"It's sad to see something like that happen and it just shows what a mental toll sport can take on you sometimes," McIlroy on Wednesday at Royal Sydney, ahead of this week’s Australian Open, according to multiple accounts. "As sport becomes so big and there's so much pressure and so much on the line, it's becoming more and more common that these sorts of stress-related illnesses are happening and it just shows how much of a mental toll it takes on you sometimes."
McIlroy could just as easily have been referring to the ongoing saga involving Martin and his abrupt departure from his NFL team after, among other incidents, receiving apparent threats and racist text and voice-mail messages from teammate Richie Incognito.
More to the point, however, the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland, who scaled the heights of superstardom after his record-breaking, eight-shot romp to the 2011 U.S. Open crown and a dominating 2012 season, was likely talking about himself after he his well-documented struggles to regain form following his much-hyped and overly criticized switch from Titleist to Nike in January.
Throughout the long 2013 campaign, which for McIlroy will finally end with Woods’ Northwestern Mutual World Challenge next week, the Ulsterman has said that his injured psyche was far more to blame for his ragged season than any physical challenges. During the British Open in July, he called himself "brain dead," and told Jack Nicklaus after a horrendous first round at the Memorial that his issues were between his ears.
In addition to his multimillion-dollar move to Nike, McIlroy has had a few other things going on outside the ropes. There was the lawsuit with U.S. sportswear company Oakley, which seems to have been settled; continuing litigation with his former sports management firm; and widespread speculation about his relationship with tennis star girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, much of which the parties in question instigated with their frequent and flirty Twitter posts.
"It's been a long year, I guess mentally more than physically," McIlroy told Reuters on Wednesday. "Physically, golf doesn't take that much out of you, but mentally it's quite draining, especially this year for me, not just the golf and being frustrated with my game but having to answer the questions and having to come up with reasons why I'm not playing well and all that stuff."
McIlroy hoped, once and for all, to put an end to such queries with a win this week, though he’ll have to play through a red-hot Adam Scott and fellow Aussie Jason Day, among others, to end his year-long victory drought.
"I've said for the last couple of months I just wanted to try and finish this season strongly and get some momentum to go in 2014," he added. "This would be the perfect place to get that first win of the year and give me a sort of springboard into the next season."
As for the relentless badinage that Woods so relishes, McIlroy averred that that type of friendly back-and-forth between BFFs bore no similarities to the over-the-top smack talk and other harassment that seemed to go on in other sports.
"There is a bit more humor [and banter] in it," he said. "I think it is a bit different when two people know each other pretty well, you can get that bond and know its a bit of fun.
"At least you can go and have a beer or whatever after play," McIlroy added. "I don't think those guys are having beers together after the [cricket] matches."