Paul Kimmage meets Rory McIlroy - Part Two: Ryder Cup battles, Irish Open win and his longing for a green jacket
Planet Rory. During those countless days spent gazing in wonder and watching from afar perhaps the strangest was that morning in May 2014, when a statement was issued announcing the end of his engagement to the tennis player, Caroline Wozniacki.
There is no right way to end a relationship that has been important to two people. The problem is mine. The wedding invitations issued at the weekend made me realise that I wasn't ready for all that marriage entails. I wish Caroline all the happiness she deserves and thank her for the great times we've had. I will not be saying anything more about our relationship in any setting.
An hour later, he opened his heart to the press on the eve of the PGA Championship at Wentworth. Four days after that, he won the tournament. Two months later he won his first Open at Hoylake. Two weeks after that, he won the Bridgestone Invitational at Akron. A week later he won his fourth Major - the US PGA - at Valhalla. He was world number one again and king of all he surveyed. But the moment that lingered was his hurt at Wentworth.
Rory McIlroy was only human.
The interview has entered the third hour and he is talking about his relationship with his fiancée, Erica Stoll. "The thing I love about it," he says, "is that we were friends before anything romantic happened. We met when she was working for the PGA of America, and renting a condo in Palm Beach, and I found it refreshing being with someone who was living a normal life rather than, 'Oh! My jet is 30 minutes late!'
"I could speak to her about anything, we ended up spending a bit of time together and realised that there was something more there. I love that she knows everything about me, and there was no judgement there. There was no judgement from day one, which is huge, because that's very hard to find for someone in my position."
Read part One here:
- Paul Kimmage meets Rory McIlroy: The truth about the Olympics, close friendship with Tiger and the important things in life
"Yeah, I did wonder about that," I observe. "How does someone who gets sucked into that bubble of celebrity find love? How do you find someone who loves you for who you are?"
"Yeah, how do you?" he concurs. "I thought at the time that being with someone that was in a similar position to you was the obvious answer. But it isn't, because you can never get away from it. You can never detach yourself and try to come back to the real world. And that's why I feel in such a good place now. I don't feel Erica wants to change me in any way. I can be myself around her; there's no bullshit, no acting, no show."
He smiles and reaches for the pot on the table.
4 Agony and Ecstasy
A face in the crowd at Augusta National stirred memories of Carnoustie '07, when Paul McGinley faithfully followed the victory surge of his friend, Pádraig Harrington, in the Open Championship. This time the fan was Graeme McDowell as a supportive presence for his young pal, Rory McIlroy, in the third round of the US Masters. Under the most severe mental and emotional test of his young life, McIlroy remained wonderfully composed through the crucial early stretch to maintain his position at the top of the leaderboard. Apart from the support of McDowell, he could count on the presence of long-time pals Ricky McCormick, Harry Diamond and Mitchell Tweedie, with whom he is sharing a house here.
Sunday Independent, April 10, 2011
Paul Kimmage: OK, Rory, I want to go to your conquest of the Majors. Your first as a pro was a trip to Augusta for the Masters in 2009.
Rory McIlroy: Yeah, it was funny - and I think I said this at the time - but I missed the anticipation of being at home and watching it (on TV); I missed sitting down at night and waiting for the coverage to start (laughs), which shows you what a fan I am. But it was a great experience. I loved it from the moment I got there, and I knew that it would suit my game and that hopefully, one day, I would have a good chance to win it.
PK: And that chance came two years later when you entered the final round with a four-shot lead.
PK: You said in that talk you gave at the Convention Centre before the Irish Open that you still find that painful to watch?
RM (laughs): Yeah.
PK: 'It was the only time my mind has gone blank on the golf course'.
RM: It was like being hit by a punch. I was literally in a daze. I'm (standing) between those two cabins at the left of 10 (he had snap-hooked his drive from the tee) and I don't know what to think. I'm like, 'What the fuck is going on?' That was the start of it, but I think when it really (unravelled) was . . . I hit two great shots into 11 and three-putted from, what, 12 feet? And then I four-putted on 12 and was just completely flustered. It was probably similar to what happened to Jordan (Spieth) this year. I was just gone, completely gone.
PK: You said that from the 12th home, you were basically just thinking about what you would say to the press?
RM (laughs): Yeah, look, Charl (Schwartzel) was up ahead of me making a run but I'm a realist at the end of the day; I knew that my chance was gone. So it was just a matter of stopping the bleeding and playing the last few holes and to get in there and try to . . .
PK: Make sense of it?
PK: I was surprised your father wasn't there that week.
RM: No, mum and dad weren't there that week. I had my mates over and we shared a house. The Masters is the one that everyone wants to go to, so much so that we rent two houses now - there's a house for me, Erica and my parents, and another house for everyone else. But that year was just . . . I had missed the cut in 2010 and it felt like everyone was on top of me, and I didn't want that again. I wanted to do it very low-key so we rented a house with three of my mates and we had a great time - a great time. On the morning of the final round, Ulster were playing Northampton in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup and we sat down and watched that, although it didn't go that well.
PK: You shoot 80 in the final round and go back to the house. What's going through your head when you go to bed that night?
RM: It's painful. I got back and spoke to my dad and I was OK with him. He was trying to console me: "Son, these things happen. You'll be better the next time. Don't dwell too much on it." So that was fine. I didn't get to speak to my mum. Chubby (his former manager, Chubby Chandler) had rented a house and we all had dinner there. David Feherty came over and started to tell stories and I was laughing - and it sort of made me forget about it all, which was just what I needed. And I went to bed obviously very disappointed but not feeling as bad as I could have.
PK: When did you speak to your mother?
RM: The next morning. I was outside in the driveway and remember leaning on the Mercedes car that they gave us for the week and she started to cry and it was bad, really tough, and that's when it all sort of hit me. I wouldn't get very emotional with my dad but my mum is . . . it all starts to pour out. And what made it more difficult was that I was playing in Malaysia the next week.
PK: And on the same flight as Schwartzel?
RM: Yeah, we took a private jet from Augusta to New York, and then got a flight from New York to London, and from London to Malaysia. Charl has got his green jacket and that was hard to deal with, having it right there in your face. I mean nothing against Charl, he had won it and played great, but I could have done without it.
PK: You spoke to Greg Norman that week?
RM: I did. We had a really good chat. There were a couple of people I spoke to that made some good points that I took on board. One was Norman. He called me in Malaysia and we had a really good chat about (the importance of) being in your own bubble and not . . . Back then I would have been on Twitter and watching the Golf Channel and reading stuff, and it's just noise that you don't need. And that's something I've been a lot better at since. And I had a great chat with Michael Vaughan, the (former) England cricket captain.
PK: This was the point (Vaughan's) about keeping your eye-line above the spectators?
RM: Yeah, that really resonated with me, and it was something I put into practice at the very next tournament. But one problem is that you start to over-analyse everything. There's stuff coming at you from everywhere. 'Do this with your putting.' 'Your hands are too low.' 'Take your time.' 'Take more practice swings.' It's all very reactionary and you don't take a step back. But I learnt a lot from it, and I knew that I'd never put myself in that position again, or at least would deal with it better. But yeah, it was tough, and it's all ifs and buts and hindsight - but if I had won, I could have had a career grand slam at 26. But these things happen.
PK: The bounce-back was extraordinary.
RM: 70 days.
PK: Is that what it was?
Read part One here:
- Paul Kimmage meets Rory McIlroy: The truth about the Olympics, close friendship with Tiger and the important things in life
PK: Remarkable, and I was going to say important - although I don't know if that's the word - but there was no scar tissue as such?
RM: No, because it hadn't lingered, and I think that was important. It wasn't as if I had to wait a long time to have a chance again.
PK: Tell me about the 70 days.
RM: I started to see Dave Stockton, who uncomplicated my putting a little bit. It had gotten quite mechanical and there was a lot of thought going into it, instead of being more natural I guess. So that's what we tried to work on. I was playing well (third in Malaysia, ninth in Spain, fifth at Memorial) and had a week between Memorial and the US Open, so I met up with UNICEF in Miami and we flew to Haiti for two days. (An estimated three million people in Haiti had been affected by the devastating earthquake of 2010. McIlroy had become a UNICEF Ireland ambassador the previous March.) I don't know if I give that as much credit as I should in terms of just putting perspective on things, because I definitely thought about it during the week of the US Open. There was one particular shot I remember in the first round. I was five under par and leading the tournament and playing my second shot to the par five sixth - we had teed off on the 10th - a three iron from 240 yards to a back pin. There was a water hazard to the right and I was thinking about laying up and then I thought: 'You've just been in a place where millions of people have no clean water, and millions of kids get no education, and you're nervous about hitting a golf ball into some water!' So I hit my three iron into the heart of the green and two-putted for birdie. Shot 65.
PK: A great start.
RM: Yeah. I liked the course at Congressional, it felt like it fit my eye. People were talking about how tough it was in the practice days and I was thinking, 'I don't know (laughs). I feel like I can shoot some good scores here'. So that gave me a bit of confidence. I played with (Phil) Mickelson and Dustin Johnson (above) the first two days and they were probably two of the best rounds of golf I've ever played. People call it 'being in the zone' and it felt just like that. But that was the easy bit, the tough bit was going to come at the weekend when the pressure came on.
RM: And that's when I had to focus on shutting everything out. No Golf Channel, no TV, watch a movie - but when you're teeing off late on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon it can be a long morning. But I felt comfortable the whole week and that perspective thing - trying not to make it as important as it might have been - was huge. And I had been given another opportunity and was determined not to make the same mistake.
PK: What about that moment when you lift the trophy? And the contrast to Augusta?
RM: It's massive, although I didn't get a chance to think about it until (two days) later. I went to Boston for a sponsor day, and then flew to London on the Monday night to do something on the Tuesday. I'm flying home on Tuesday evening; we're coming down the Belfast Lough and in to land and I can see Holywood on my left, the place where I grew up, and I've got the US Open trophy on my lap. That's when it hits. I'm looking at this thing going: 'Holy shit! I'm a Major champion!' And I just kept saying that to myself: 'I'm a Major champion!'
RM: And to get a Major, to open my account so early in my career was very important, because I didn't have to go through what Sergio has to go through, or what Adam Scott had to go through or . . .
PK: Lee Westwood.
RM: Yeah, Westwood, and I thought that was important.
PK: And a year later you bag a second one - the (US) PGA at Kiawah.
PK: And enter this period we spoke about earlier where you start to lose perspective.
RM: Yeah, a little bit. Those 12 months were very much . . . I win the US Open and finish the year second in the world; the following March I win the Honda Classic and get to number one, so there was this steady progression of getting better. And my status was growing too. But for how good I was in 2012 - I won five times that year - there was a lot of bad in there as well. I won the Honda Classic and then struggled a bit (T-40 at the Masters, missed cut at US Open, T-60 at the Open) but it all came together at Wimbledon Golf Club, of all places, during the week of Wimbledon. (He was dating Wozniacki at the time.)
RM: Actually, it wasn't the week of Wimbledon, it was the week of the (London) Olympics. Michael (Bannon) came over and we had a couple of great practice sessions and then I went to Akron (the Bridgestone Invitational) and finished fifth, and that gave me a bit of confidence and got me out of my little rut. And as soon as I got to Kiawah, I just liked the feel of the place.
PK: And you got off to another good start.
RM: Yeah, a 67, but the big thing for me was the second day (held in 20-30mph winds and much tougher conditions than the opening round). I shot 63 in the first round at St Andrews in 2010 and shot myself out of the tournament on the second day when it was very windy and tough. That might have happened at Kiawah. I could definitely have shot 79 or 80 - but I shot a 75, which on average was a decent score, and that set me up for the weekend. It was a great week, but it was probably lost a little bit with what was going on in London, and it probably didn't get the attention it might have in a non-Olympic year.
PK (Laughs): Another reason to hate the Olympics! (He doesn't bite.)
PK: Sorry, my words.
PK: What does two Majors feel like?
RM: It feels good. It was the first time I've ever cried after I won a golf tournament. I see my dad and give him a hug and there's a few tears. "What are you doing? Why are you crying?" he said. I said (laughs), "I don't know". For some reason it was quite emotional. A lot of golfers have won one Major - and no disrespect to any of them - but it was nice to get out of that group and win another. And then once I got to two, I wanted to get out of that group and get to three. Because no matter what you do, or what you win, you always think ahead to the next thing.
RM: That's the way my mind has always worked.
5 Ying and Yang
Rory has an intuitive understanding of power. How to earn it, how to wield it, and how to keep others from taking it away. Like Tiger, he'd also learned to sniff out weakness at a young age, and to conceal his own. It's too bad that the 'Shark' nickname was wasted on Greg Norman, because Tiger and Rory are the ones who can truly smell blood.
'Slaying the Tiger'
PK: The contrast between your first two Majors and your second two is interesting. Jaime Diaz wrote a great profile of you last year in Golf Digest and made the following point: "In their way, both (the Open at Hoylake and the PGA at Valhalla) were more impressive and confidence-building than his eight-stroke victories at the 2011 US Open and 2012 PGA, which were blinding blasts of pure talent that testify to McIlroy's ability to dominate when he's on. But those first two Major victories did not truly test him in a final-nine crucible." I think you'd probably agree with that.
RM: Yeah, I would. I had a six-shot lead going into the final day at Hoylake, and had the opportunity to make it the same as the other two, but I was conscious that you only have to do enough - you don't have to run away with it the whole time - and I knew my game wasn't quite there on the Sunday to run away with it. So it was definitely a display of character and concentration and managing my game. And definitely the first win in a Major where I needed to play like that. Obviously I'd had wins before where I could battle down the stretch with people and close it out, but I think that's taken time with me over the years. Every time I get myself into contention (now) I feel it's when I play my best, whereas at the start of my career, I'd get into those positions and go into my shell a little bit and not go after it the same way. So it was great to be able to win it like that.
PK: Two weeks after beating Sergio at the Open, you beat him again in Akron.
RM: Yeah, I was battling with Sergio and Rickie (Fowler) that whole summer - Sergio and Rickie at Hoylake, Sergio at Akron, and Rickie and Phil (Mickelson) were up ahead of me on the final day (of the PGA) at Valhalla and making a bit of a charge there. And it was an 'I've beaten them before, I'm going to beat them again' kind of thing - not that in golf you want to make it so personal, or so one-to-one.
PK: But you do?
RM: Yeah, you really do. And that's sort of what gets me going.
PK: There's a brilliant passage about that final round in Valhalla in Slaying The Tiger by Shane Ryan. There's a delay on one of the tees, and Mickelson and Fowler are there, and they want to engage you, but you're not having it. You're staying in your zone: 'We're not pals here. This is war.'
PK: How conscious were you of that?
RM: I was conscious of it. I was over-par on the front nine and struggling a bit and I see the two boys ahead chipping in and holing putts. And I saw them fist-pump coming off one of the greens and remember thinking: 'What the fuck are they doing?'
RM: 'This is a Major championship! You're trying to beat each other! This isn't the Ryder Cup here!' And it did, it annoyed me. I thought: 'I'm going to beat these two.' And that's sort of what turned it for me, and probably what he's talking about. There was a wait on a tee and . . .
PK: I have the passage here: "An early weather delay had forced the PGA of America to condense the later tee times, and things got so slow in the early afternoon that multiple groups began to stack up on the tee boxes. That was the case on the sixth, when Rory arrived to find Mickelson and Fowler still waiting to hit their first shots on the long par four. Bernd Wiesberger, Rory's playing partner, walked over to the two golfers and made polite conversation. It's what you'd expect - despite the pressure, social decorum dictates that you exchange pleasantries, and pretend it's just an ordinary round on an ordinary day. JP Fitzgerald, Rory's caddie, did the same. Phil and Rickie gazed down the fairway and held a halting conversation - something about golf courses they'd played - and Phil mindlessly juggled a ball, tap, tap, tapping it with the face of his hybrid. As they waited, a strange kind of energy took over the scene, and it emanated from the man who wasn't talking. Ten feet away, Rory McIlroy sat on a bench, seething and motionless, hard eyes fixed on empty space. It was hard not to notice that he hadn't offered any greeting to his fellow golfers - not a wave, not a tilt of his head, not so much as a spare look in their direction. He simply sat down and glared."
RM: That would be about right.
PK: It would?
RM: Yeah, I mean I would class Rickie as one of my closest friends on Tour, but this is the final round of a Major, and the boys are getting closer to me, and I've gone from having a one-shot lead to being tied or one behind. It's not a time to be talking about golf courses you've played or . . . well, for me anyway. I'm in my own space, and I want my own thoughts, and Rickie and Phil doing their old fist-bumping thing gave me a bit more of an edge. I was almost too pumped up in a way, but it worked in my favour on the back nine.
PK: Have you always been like that? I don't get the impression you have.
PK: When did it happen? How did it happen?
Read part One here:
- Paul Kimmage meets Rory McIlroy: The truth about the Olympics, close friendship with Tiger and the important things in life
RM: When I realised it was OK to win; when I realised that people liked winners. I used to feel guilty (about winning). I felt it was selfish and almost a bad trait to have. And I wasn't like that early in my career, I was very conscious of trying to be the nice guy. But I realised there are certain times to be that person, and also times to be competitive, and not exchange pleasantries on the sixth tee of the final round of a Major.
PK: When did you realise it was okay to win?
PK: Why are you laughing?
RM: I don't know.
PK: OK, I'll rephrase that. When did you decide it was OK to be a bollox?
RM: When I became comfortable in my own skin. I feel like you go through an awkward period of your life where you're trying to discover who you are, and I probably wasn't comfortable in my own skin until I was 22 or 23. You come to the realisation: this is who you are; and it's OK that this is who you are; it's OK to be competitive. It's OK to make someone feel bad if you've beaten them on the last green. It's OK to be a winner, it doesn't make you a dick (laughs). I'm not like that every day. I mean, we could sit here and play cards and it wouldn't bother me who won, but whenever it's golf, something I pride myself on for being, I think, the best in the world at, that's when my pride and my ego take over a little bit. Because we're always taught that having an ego isn't a good thing, but I feel in certain situations it is.
PK: But that actually runs contrary to you as a person?
RM: Yeah, and these two almost separate lives that I lead. It's a bit of Ying and Yang. I desperately want to be this normal person, but at the same time, when I get on the golf course, I'm this ultra-competitive guy that couldn't give a shit about anyone (laughs). But I'm OK with that because that's who I need to be to achieve my goals.
PK: Which of your four Majors has given you the biggest buzz? Or do they compare?
RM: The biggest buzz? Valhalla.
RM: It's getting dark; I'm thinking we might have to come back the next day, and just the energy of winning my second Major in a year and third (event) in a row. And there was a lot of noise that week because I'd just got back to world number one, so that was probably the biggest buzz, the biggest adrenaline rush: 'YES!' But the Open is the Open.
PK: The Claret Jug.
RM: Yeah, and it's the only one my mother had seen me win.
PK: Six weeks after Valhalla you were drawn against Fowler in the singles at the Ryder Cup and you wanted to "crush him".
PK: Why did that matter so much?
RM: It was just my competitive instinct taking over. Again, we're great friends off the course, but when I get on the course I just want to win. It was the last big thing of the year and I wanted to give it the end I felt my year deserved - a Ryder Cup singles win. I was very proud of that record until this year (laughs). He's my contemporary as well, someone I'm going to compete against for the next 10 years, so it was important to keep that 'hold' on him I guess.
RM: It's a psychological thing.
6. Augusta Fever
Rory McIlroy is going to win this Masters. He has to, right? He's the best player in the world by a comfortable margin, and Augusta National sets up perfectly for his towering draw. He has always displayed a dramatic sense of the moment, and there's never been a better time to break through: McIlroy won the last two Major championships of 2014, a victory would give him the career Grand Slam, and he would continue his pursuit of matching Tiger Woods' greatest feat, winning four straight Majors. History awaits. It is inevitable. It is ordained. Isn't it?
"Well, the Masters does funny things to people," says Johnny Miller, three times a runner-up there. "Some guys get Augusta fever. I know I did. It's such a sweet tournament, the course is so thrilling, the setting just reeks of golf history, (and) once you get a taste of being in contention it can drive you nuts. It doesn't allow you to play your normal, comfortable game, because you want it too much."
Sports Illustrated, April 6, 2015
PK: You win two Majors on the spin and you're going for three at the 2015 Masters and a career Grand Slam.
PK: At the press conference in Valhalla, you made a reference to a tweet you'd seen from Jason Day saying there were something like 290 days to the Masters. So it was being talked about even at that stage.
RM: Yeah, honestly, I hate the build-up to the Masters. I hate the hype. I hate the . . . you're being asked to do so many interviews - the cover of this magazine, the cover of that magazine - and I don't want to deal with it. In an ideal world, I would just shut myself away and turn up at Augusta, but my life isn't my own these days and there are people like sponsors I have to keep happy. And they're obviously going to be happy if I'm on the cover of a magazine.
PK: I'm not sure I've ever seen you as tight as you were before that 2015 Masters?
RM: Yeah, it's eight months after the PGA and that's a long time to be thinking about it. You try to put it out of your head, and to get on with your life, and try to take it tournament by tournament, but it's always just lingering there. Everyone thinks the season starts in January in Hawaii or Dubai; the season starts at Augusta, that's what everyone is building towards, and you have to field questions about it for months. I've had two years of it now - going there to try to complete the career Grand Slam - and given it a decent go both years but haven't quite pulled it off. Obviously Saturday this year was very disappointing . . .
PK: When you played with Jordan?
(He started the round a shot out of the lead but failed to make a birdie and carded a 77.)
RM: Yeah. But remember we were talking earlier about getting a Major early and not having to deal with the Sergio/Westwood thing? Well, I still have to deal with it, but it's with Augusta.
PK: The Masters is now your thing?
PK: Here's some quotes from some guys who never made it. Greg Norman: "I wanted it badly. Did I want it too much? Probably." Ernie Els: "I did put quite a lot of pressure on myself there. I always felt I was made for that course. It was to my detriment, unfortunately. It didn't quite work out for me. Sometimes I wish I could've approached it a little differently, but it is what it is."
PK: This is from Rory McIlroy in 2015: "You have to just try and get it out of your head where you are and what it means and just try and execute your shots like you normally do". You haven't managed that yet?
RM: I've managed it for certain periods, I haven't managed it for the whole golf tournament. There have been moments when I've had to execute (certain shots) and I haven't. And then I fall out of contention and free up again. It does it to you - the golf course does it to you.
PK: Yeah, that's been the pattern.
RM: That's been the pattern for not just me but for those great players that went before me. And it's a matter of getting that out of your head. I had a great conversation with Phil Mickelson (above) a couple of years ago. I asked: "What is it about Augusta that you like?" He said: "I feel like I can play so free there." I was taken aback: "WHAAT?" He said: "Well, it's all about where you miss. If you miss it in the right spots (it's an) easy up-and-down." I thought, 'Here's someone that's won it three times. I'm definitely approaching it the wrong way!'
RM: So that hit home with me a bit. He said: "The fairways are a lot wider than usual and as long as you miss it in the right spot . . . " So I thought, 'Jesus! Maybe he's right.' But here's the problem . . . say the back-left pin on 14: you go at that pin thinking, 'I'll miss it long and miss it left' and all of a sudden it's, 'Oh! No, I'll just hit it this way'. And there's a lot of that goes on; a lot of tight swings where you're almost making sure you're missing it in the right spot, instead of maybe just saying, "I'm not going to go at the pin, I'm going to go here but be aggressive for that spot."
RM: And here's another thing I'd say - and this is going back to Jack Nicklaus, who won the Masters six times - and Jack always tries to give me a bit of advice going up there . . . "All I used to do was hit it in the middle of the greens." And I say to him: "Jack, yes, but we're playing on greens that are 16 on the stimp (meter), you were playing when they were 10! Hit it in the middle of the green now and you're going to three-putt 10 times!" (Laughs) So it's a little different these days than it was. The greens probably weren't designed to be as quick as they are, so it obviously magnifies your misses.
RM: I've tried to alter my preparation for it every year . . . "That didn't work last year. Let's try something else." (Laughs) I always go up the week before and try to get a couple of practice rounds in, but it often feels like a waste of time. The course is nowhere near as fast as what they set it up to be. The grass on the fairways is a bit longer; the greens are a bit softer and slower. And even the practice rounds you play during the week - from Wednesday morning to when you tee off on Thursday, it's a completely different golf course.
RM: I'm playing a lot leading up to it this year and will hopefully be competitive and just get into a rhythm of playing. But it's almost like, as Ernie says, you care too much about it, instead of free-wheeling a little bit.
PK: So in 2015 you arrive there trying to achieve this extraordinary feat, and the tournament is won by Jordan Spieth (above), who features a week later on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I was just wondering if you remember the headline: 'Jordan Rules: The Spieth Era Begins Now.'
RM: Yeah, yeah.
PK: 'Sorry, Rory, your time is done.'
RM (Smiles): 'You go over there.'
PK: How ‑ and I don't know if it's the word - 'hurtful' was that?
RM: The thing is, they love an 'era' in the States, because after I won at Congressional Sports Illustrated called it 'The Rory Era'. So we have 'The Jordan Era' . . . 'The Big Three' . . . 'The Big Four' or whatever it may be. And I don't blame journalists or people in the media for this - I think it's just popular culture - but they don't look at the wider view or the big picture. You don't win for six months? 'He's in a slump!' Look at Jordan for example after what he did at Augusta: 'This will crush him!' 'He'll never come back!' It's so reactionary. I remember thinking: 'Hold on a minute here!' I actually felt like I needed to defend him. I think I sent out a tweet at one point saying, 'He's 22-years-old. He's world number one. He makes 40 million a year. He'll be fine'.
RM: It's a tough one because it's hard to put your point across. I mean they talk about this rivalry between myself and Jordan and Jason and Dustin and whoever, but it needs time to develop into what it will be. But people don't have the patience to give it time.
PK: OK, let's talk about this year: you mentioned your disappointment after the third round at the Masters and a month later, when you travel to the Irish Open, you haven't won since . . . remind me?
RM: November, the 'DP World' in Dubai.
PK: And people are talking about a slump.
RM: Exactly. I'd gone five or six months without a win, and a couple of those months I wasn't playing - I won the DP World in the middle of November and didn't play again until the end of January so . . .
PK: How would you describe it? I watched you at Riviera in February and you had a chance; you had a chance at Doral, you finished fourth at the Matchplay, 10th at the Masters . . . is frustrating the word?
RM: Yeah, it was frustrating. I go out in the final round at Riviera with a chance and eagle the first hole, and I'm tied for the lead and then it just never got going. I made a bogey, and then compounded it with another one. I was playing with Adam Scott and as he started to go forward it seemed like I started to go backwards. So that was disappointing.
PK: There were a few missed putts that stood out.
RM: Yeah, I wouldn't say my confidence was fragile, it was more . . . when I saw good things happening my confidence went sky high, but then whenever I hit a little bump - like that three-putt after a great shot into four - it went as quickly the other way. So it was very much a mental thing. I mean, honestly, I was probably a little bit in denial about my putting at times last year: "No, no, I've putted well before. I know what I'm doing. I know what I need to do." And I was just a bit stubborn about it, I guess.
PK: Here's something you said recently: "The thing I learned this year was not to be too proud. I felt like I went long enough without asking for advice on my putting, which was clearly the thing that was letting me down. I wanted to figure it out on my own but what I really needed was a second opinion. I was too stubborn and when I got that second opinion in August, it really turned my season around."
RM: Yeah, totally correct.
PK: Tell me about the Irish Open; you've won four Majors and some of the biggest tournaments in the world and your Twitter avatar - the main photo on your Twitter feed - is from your win at the K Club and that brilliant five wood into the 18th green.
RM: Yeah, it's just a great scene. I get goosebumps thinking about it now. It's one of the best feelings of my life.
PK: Explain that.
RM: My mum was more emotional after that Irish Open win than anything else. It's the one tournament my mother wanted me to win, or to see me win, before anything else.
RM: Yeah, it means an awful lot. I remember flying back from Munich (he had just finished runner-up at the European Young Masters) when Michael Campbell won at Portmarnock in 2003. We flew over the golf course on the way in to land and I remember looking down and seeing the (remnants of the) crowd and thinking, 'Hopefully that's me one day'. So it goes back a long way.
PK: The most striking thing about it for me was your force of will: You were not going to be beaten that week.
RM: Yeah, I went out in the final round with a chance and let it slip a bit - Russell Knox was playing well - and I really needed to dig deep and pull something out. There's other tournaments that people would deem more important but those other tournaments haven't meant as much to me as the Irish Open. And I was very emotional afterwards for a number of reasons: because of the prize money and where it was going (he donated the winner's cheque to charity); because of what it meant to me; and because of what it meant to my mum.
PK: Your putting continued to frustrate you and it was in August, after the PGA, that you started working with Phil Kenyon?
RM: Yeah, I flew home after the PGA and went over to see him at his studio in Southport, and then saw him at the Barclays the next week.
PK: And a week later you won in Boston, which was remarkable really, because there were no guarantees it was going to happen so quickly.
RM: I had given myself a long time-out - and still do. We're still working on things and trying to bed things in, but it's better and a lot more consistent. But I was taking the view: 'If I can go to Augusta next year 100 per cent comfortable with my putting, and in a better place, I will be very, very happy.'
PK: Two weeks after Boston you win the Tour Championship and clinch the FedEx Cup and arrive at the Ryder Cup on a huge high.
RM: Yeah. I get a real kick out of winning tournaments that I've never won before, and to win the FedEx and the Tour Championship and the Irish Open - stuff I hadn't won before - was a great buzz. So I was feeling great about myself going into the Ryder Cup and again, because I'm more comfortable with who I am, I tried to set the tone for the European team and be the leader. And I feel like I did that pretty well for the week.
PK: In the singles you are sent out first to play Patrick Reed - or 'Captain America' as he was dubbed - who was also in a rich vein of form. And it's a match that will be remembered for a long time. This is from a report by Matt Dickinson in The Times: "The taut, muscular McIlroy had been deliberately restrained in those early holes but when he birdied the sixth, he could hold back no more, celebrating with a scream. When Reed responded with his own birdie, he gave a bow, a cheeky nod to McIlroy's reaction after an eagle putt on Friday."
RM: Yeah, we started off pretty steady. I holed a good birdie putt on three to go one up, we halved the fourth and he made eagle on five to get back to all square and gave it a big (whoop), which is maybe not what you're supposed to do, but it's what you can do at a Ryder Cup. And then six was just . . . I holed the putt and wanted to make as much noise and create as much commotion as possible before he hit his putt for the half. I'm not trying to put him off, I'm just trying to rattle him and to get every advantage I can because I really want to win this match. So I let out that scream and he obviously holes after me, and gives me this little bow like I had done on the first day. So that's sort of when it started, and then seven was basically the opposite. He holed his birdie putt before I did and made this whole commotion and scream, and then I holed after him and turned around to the crowd and gave it . . .
PK: The finger.
RM: Yeah, the shush.
RM: So it was just basically going back and forth and it was all good fun. There was no animosity because I know what Patrick is like and I actually get on pretty well with him. It was a show for the crowd and a bit of bravado: "I'm not going to let you do that to me." And there was a bit of ego in there as well.
PK: Now you're a fight fan, and it seemed like we were watching two great boxers going toe-to-toe. Did it feel like that inside the ropes?
RM: It did feel like that. It was a bit of a blood fest. I'd hit him with a punch and he'd hit me back and it was very much that way, a ding-dong battle. And that obviously culminated with what happened on the eighth.
PK: Yeah, that's what I was coming to.
RM: That's what people will remember it for. They're not going to remember the whole match because the rest of it wasn't that good, and if you're a pure golf fan you'd much rather have watched Phil and Sergio. They'll remember that stretch of holes when we were five under through eight and all square, but it didn't get much better after that.
PK: It looked like - again to use the boxing analogy - that you were both out on your feet?
RM: Well for me, that's what it was, especially as I'd carried on like that for two-and-a-half days. I'd played two matches on Friday and Saturday so there's a lot of mental and a bit of physical (fatigue), so the ending was kind of premature. Sorry, not the ending, but the climax on the eighth green, when I hole that putt from 60 feet and go nuts.
PK: And he follows you in.
RM: Yeah, and obviously we were both amped up, but I never thought I'd see something like that of myself on the golf course. Something just came over me and I went absolutely nuts. I look at the video of it and chuckle, 'Is that really me?'
PK: Was there a lesson Rory? It was a fantastic match but it's also one you lost?
RM: I guess the lesson is that those exuberant celebrations - not just on the final day but the rest of the week as well - probably cost me a record I wanted to keep: I had never been beaten in a Ryder Cup singles. So personally that was the most disappointing thing. It was disappointing that we lost as a team but I definitely felt what I did on the front nine that day cost me that match. I got a little tired, a little mentally fatigued . . . I don't even think I made a birdie on the back nine.
PK: You made one on 17.
RM: Did I?
PK: Sorry, no, he made bogey.
RM: Yeah, it was scrappy on the way in. But it was an incredible experience. And it was great to be a part of a match that will probably go down in history - some of it for the right reasons, and some of it for well, not the wrong reasons, but different reasons. As I've said, if you're a pure golfing fan, the match with Phil and Sergio was probably the match of that Ryder Cup singles day. We sort of overshadowed it by jumping about and making fools of ourselves.
PK: I want to finish with your date of birth - May 4, 1989 - which makes you 27. How does it feel to be Rory McIlroy at 27?
RM: I feel like I've experienced a lot more than my 27 years. I've been travelling the world to play golf since I was 16, so 11 years, which is a pretty decent career in any sportsman's world. I've learned so much more in those years than I ever would have done going to university, or at school, and those experiences have made me wiser, (laughs) and a bit more cynical.
RM: But it feels pretty good. I feel like I'm at a great stage in my life. I'm very happy professionally, and personally, and I've got some great people around me. I think that's been one of the key things I've learnt along the way - that it can't just be up to me. There has to be people around you that share your vision, and want to be part of the journey.
Sunday Indo Sport