Bill Elliott: A double-edged sword

Rory McIlroy has the chance to earn fame and fortune on the pro tour – but he also has to cope with innumerable hotel rooms and competitors twice his age .

Have I mentioned that I am trying to learn to play the acoustic guitar? It s difficult, very difficult, but I retain some small hope of one day being able to play even a ten second burst of the Rodriguez Guitar Concerto, the finest piece of music ever written and followed closely of course by Eric Clapton s extended version of Layla. This at least is my small ambition. My wife s hope is that sooner rather than later I ll grow up.

Of course neither of these ambitions may ever be realised mine or hers - but the point here is that you really never are too old to try to learn a new trick. What concerns me more on this page is another question: Can you ever be too young to play professional golf? The answer to this poser is more complicated but let s have a go.

I began considering this as I watched the final stages of the recent Dunhill Links Trophy, an over-inflated pro-am that is a bit of fun but that turns very serious indeed when it comes to the amount of dosh on offer to those professionals who choose to put up with some jittery amateur for four days in Scotland.

You will know that Rory McIlroy finished third in Fife, won roughly £150,000 and so almost certainly secured his playing rights on the European Tour for next season. This, of course, is a cause for celebration. Under a month earlier Rory had been an amateur himself, albeit one who played off plus six and was understandably being hailed everywhere as The Next Big Thing.

He may be forgiven for thinking this himself at the moment because his impact on the Tour to date has been as breathtaking as it has been brief. Belfast cocky but nice at the same time, Rory has all the early markings of a champ in the making. But, and it s a big but, I have spent my professional life witnessing the debuts of young, exceptionally talented men who sooner rather than later go backwards for the first time in their short lives and don t know how to handle it.

For every George Best or Seve Ballesteros there is an army of wannabes who ended up has-beens before the second door had shut. Why? Usually this has been because, whatever the sport, the older pros often work out a way to stymie emerging talent and adversity is the one thing prodigious talent never really encounters as a youngster. Plus there is the natural maturing process that throws up the possibility of other diversions away from sport if you know what I mean.

In golf, however, there is another factor that threatens those who enter the arena during the spotty youth phase. This is the tedium that comes with endless travel and even longer hours and days spent aimlessly in and around hotel rooms. It may seem exciting to those who spend their working weeks trudging back and forth to the same dreary office or factory but, believe me, travel soon loses its glittering image.

At just 18, Rory faces a daunting prospect of mixing with men, many of whom are old enough to be his father, as well as a schedule that inevitably will mean leaving home, family and friends on a Tuesday, getting back late Sunday evenings and then turning everything around so he can fly off again on another Tuesday.

Justin Rose has told me how hard he found it to adjust to life on the road when he, too, turned pro as a teenager and how he missed mixing with other young blokes. Coming home to listen to their tales of the previous week s derring-do did not help much either. Then there is my old friend Trevor Homer.

Trevor was good enough to win The Amateur Championship twice in 1972 and 1974 before turning professional but within two years of that point he was back where he started. It wasn t that he failed to make the grade as a player but that he failed the travelling test. I just got so bored out there. You go into it thinking that it is all about the golf but really there is so much more to it than that. At least these days the young guys are usually better taken care of, he says.

And they are. Rory is probably wise to have elected to join Chubby Chandler s management company for Chubby runs his golfers as though they were family and in Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood there are two guys who know the scene backwards and who will do everything they can to help the young Ulsterman survive. Even they, however, are twice his age.

When he made his pro debut at The Belfry in September a colleague of mine spent the day watching him closely. He was impressed but with one small caveat. Apparently he saw Rory elect to play a spectacular flop shot from the base of the 18th green to a high pin position set on level ground just about large enough to accommodate an eagle s nest. The flop was a hit, Rory s ball nestling within a few feet of the flag but it was not the percentage shot that an experienced pro in that position would have tried.

Sooner rather than later the kid will work out that sometimes caution is better than bravado for he is good enough and savvy enough to learn swiftly what the pro game is about on the field of play. It is how quickly he comes to terms with the off-course stuff, however, that ultimately will determine his future.

I wish him well.

Editor At Large

Bill has been part of the Golf Monthly woodwork for many years. A very respected Golf Journalist he has attended over 40 Open Championships. Bill  was the Observer's golf correspondent. He spent 26 years as a sports writer for Express Newspapers and is a former Magazine Sportswriter of the Year. After 40 years on 'Fleet Street' starting with the Daily Express and finishing on The Observer and Guardian in 2010. Now semi-retired but still Editor at Large of Golf Monthly Magazine and regular broadcaster for BBC and Sky. Author of several golf-related books and a former chairman of the Association of Golf Writers. Experienced after dinner speaker.