In the first of a two-part interview, Rory McIlroy opens up to Paul Kimmage about the last three years
We’re sitting in a room of his splendid home in Jupiter, Florida. Three hours have passed since we settled into our chairs and we’ve reached the first round of the 2022 Masters.
“So, I open with a 73,” he says. “Is that correct?”
But it triggers something that distracts me.
The coffee table between us is laden with props: three voice recorders, some photocopied prints of our two previous interviews — ‘The Essential Rory’ in January 2017, and ‘Rory Revisited’ in February 2020 — and a ring binder containing most of what he’s said for the last three years, and most of what’s been said about him.
I reach for the binder and find a piece published by Sports Illustrated on the eve of the Masters, and some lines I’ve highlighted with a pen:
“Rory can feel like a bit of an afterthought these days.”
“It’s hard to ever again think of him as anything but a contender.”
“He is caught between the comfort of his stardom and the unease that comes with knowing he is underachieving.”
But it was the headline that pulled me in — the question I remembered most: ‘Rory McIlroy Was Once The Next Tiger Woods. So, What Is He Now?’
Three years earlier, in February 2020, no one was asking questions when he arrived on Sunset Boulevard for the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club. He was the FedEx Cup Champion, the Golfer of the Decade, and the world number one. A month later Covid hit, and his game went into a tailspin until the Ryder Cup in September 2021, when he turned it around and fought his way back.
He is European number one.
He is US number one.
He is world number one.
So, what is he now?
Two weeks ago, McIlroy travelled to Dubai for the DP World Tour Championship. At his pre-tournament press conference, he was asked a question about Greg Norman, and the ongoing rift in the sport between the established tours and LIV Golf.
“I think Greg needs to go,” he said. “I think he just needs to exit stage left. He’s made his mark but I think now is the right time to say, ‘Look, you’ve got this thing off the ground, but no one is going to talk unless there’s an adult in the room that can actually try to mend fences’.”
His comments went viral, and were played that night by Joe Molloy and Michael McCarthy on Newstalk’s Off The Ball. Here’s what happened next:
Molloy: “Oh my God!”
McCarthy: “That’s amazing.”
Molloy: “He drove over him, reversed back over him, and drove over him a few more times.”
McCarthy: “Adult in the room!”
Molloy: “That is strong.”
McCarthy: “He’s not wrong.”
Molloy: “I just can’t believe he said it.”
McCarthy: “Yeah, he’s been probably a bit more subtle in the past but go on Rory.”
Then there was a split-second pause before McCarthy went again: “God I love, LOVE, 2022 Rory McIlroy. He’s the best character in sport.”
In the summer of 1970, Joe stopped at the Las Vegas Hilton where the King was making a comeback. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” Elvis called from the stage in that bubba baritone of his, “I have a good friend here tonight. The greatest football player, the greatest quarterback, my hero, Joe Namath.”
Soon Elvis’s manager, Colonel Parker, came to request Namath’s presence backstage. When they got there Elvis told his pretty young wife, Priscilla, to hit the casino. “This gonna be a man’s night of talk,” he said. Then Elvis started apologising. “Joe,” he said, “I wasn’t at my best tonight. I got a cold.”
‘Namath’ - Mark Kriegel
Paul Kimmage: Let’s start with something original: How are you?
Rory McIlroy: I’m great thank you. Thank you for making the trip.
PK: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that. This is our third interview. It took me 45 minutes — a train ride to Dublin — to reach you the first time. The second time was a two-hour drive up the M1 to Belfast. It feels like Planet Rory is getting further and further away?
RM: Yeah, in a way. I don’t get back as much as I used to.
PK: Here’s something else that struck me on the flight over: the more time I’ve spent around you, the more complex you seem.
RM: In terms of …
PK: I was talking about this to Harry [Diamond, his best friend and caddie] recently and he reminded me of your dad’s favourite saying: Every day’s a Saturday.
PK: “That’s Rory,” he said. “They’re both optimists. He’s Gerry’s son.” But my sense is there’s more than him to you?
RM: I think I’ve been blessed with my dad’s optimism. I have. I try to see the good in everything. My dad’s very personable, sociable … he worked in bars all his life, and I think he was drawn to that because of his personality.
PK: Whereas you’re a bit … ?
RM: I would be a bit stand-offish with people I don’t know. The one thing my dad does better than I do is small talk. He can walk into a room of people and just start a conversation: “How are you doing. The weather’s good.” And I’m all for that too, and giving people time, but not to the detriment of yourself. I sometimes think, ‘Well that’s a waste of time. Why even have that conversation?’ And I think that’s my mother’s personality.
PK: I remember meeting your mother at the Masters a few years ago: “Ah, Rosie, how are you?” And I could sense her reserve straightaway: ‘Do not disturb.’
RM: Yeah, my mum sits back and observes and tries to scope everyone out, and she’s definitely a better judge of character than me or my dad. When she trusts you, she is fiercely loyal and protective, but if there’s a glimmer of hesitancy there she won’t want anything to do with you.
PK: I get the same vibe from Erica.
RM: Yeah, same thing: ‘I am not going to trust you until I feel like you’re trustworthy (laughs).’ That’s her personality. She’s protective, and reserved, and again a better judge of character than me. We’ll walk into a room together and people will strike up a conversation with her but want to get to me. She sees it and understands it. And for someone in my position to have two women around me like that is great.
PK: That must happen a lot? People trying to get to you? The pests as Seán [O’Flaherty, his manager] calls them.
RM: (Laughs) Yeah, there’s plenty of those.
PK: Are you conscious of it?
RM: I understand it.
PK: I guess what I’m pawing at is your status now. Michael Jordan is a neighbour. You’re friends with Tiger Woods. Does Joe Namath mean anything to you?
RM: I know who he is.
PK: He owns a restaurant here.
RM: Yeah, I think Erica has been a couple of times. It’s across the street from ‘1000 North’.
PK: ‘1000 North’ is Jordan’s restaurant?
RM: He’s an investor.
PK: And ‘The Woods Jupiter’ is just down the road?
RM: Yeah, Jupiter is a place with a lot of important people, but it’s a small place.
PK: My first time here was to interview Namath. What a life! He was an absolute icon.
RM: We all have our time in the sun — Namath, Jordan, Tiger — and I’m not putting myself with them, because I’m not their stature or status, but we all have a time when we’re up there and have notoriety. And if you play well enough, and are successful enough, you’ll probably carry that notoriety with you for the rest of your life. I guess what makes those guys so successful is that they didn’t get caught up in it. They just did their thing. One thing I’ve realised is that you don’t create an aura or a status yourself, other people do that for you. A narrative starts to build and people think differently of you. That’s the way it seems to me.
PK: And the danger is getting sucked into that?
RM: Yeah, you can’t get sucked into that. I’m just doing what I’ve always done basically, trying to live my life.
PK: Why Jupiter? You had choice, obviously.
RM: I played the Honda Classic here in 2009 — my second event ever in the United States as a professional. I had played in Tucson the week before and came down early with my mum and dad. We went to the Gardens Mall on Sunday to get a couple of things, and the first person I bumped into in the car park was Jack Nicklaus. I was like, wow! He said, “If you want a place to practice during the week you can come to the Bear’s Club.” I actually had dinner in this house that week.
RM: Yeah, when the Els [family] owned it.
PK: How did that come about?
RM: Chubby Chandler was my manager at the time.
PK: Who was also managing Ernie?
RM: Yes. It’s a very different layout now, we knocked part of it down and rebuilt, but we were sitting over there [points]: Ernie and his wife, Liezl, Chubby and my mum and dad. The tennis court out there is where their guesthouse used to be, and mum says: “Who lives over there in that house?” “No, that’s our house,” Liezl says. “It’s all the same house.” (Laughs). And my mum is like, “Oh, okay.”
RM: Yeah, so I guess my connection to this area goes back to 2009. I rented and then bought a place in Jupiter at the end of 2012, so I’ve spent more time here than anywhere else. I don’t see myself here for the rest of my life, but it suits me for what I’m doing now, and it suits my family, and I don’t know if it’s home forever, but it’s home for now.
Nicklaus was there to greet most of the champions on the first tee of the four-hole exhibition around the loop of the Old Course (holes 1, 2, 17 and 18) and he couldn’t help but join up with the last group at the end — Woods, Trevino, McIlroy and Georgia Hall, an R&A ambassador and winner of the Women’s British Amateur and Women’s British Open.
The Celebration of Champions is a treat, held only at the home of golf and not even every year. It was first done in 2000 for the millennial. It was repeated in 2010 for the 150-year anniversary of the Open, except that nasty weather cancelled the occasion. So they finished it off in 2015.
McIlroy famously missed that year after injuring his knee while playing soccer. He wouldn’t have missed this one for the world. “It’s unbelievable,” McIlroy said. “Playing St Andrews, past champion, playing with my hero. If you had told 10-year-old Rory you’d be part of something like this, I wouldn’t have believed you. It was really, really cool. Really special.”
With so much star power, the question had to be asked: Which was the hero? McIlroy laughed. Given his age (33), it was Woods, and always had been. After a charity pro-am a week ago in the west of Ireland, Woods and McIlroy played an unannounced practice round at Ballybunion, a huge treat for the storied Irish club. “And Jack has become close to me as well, just from living at the Bear’s Club, practicing there,” McIlroy said. “For me not getting to do this in 2015, it’s nice to be part of it.”
Doug Ferguson, Associated Press,
July 11, 2022
PK: Let’s stay with icons. You played with Tiger, Jack, and Lee Trevino in the Celebration of Champions on the Monday of the Open at St Andrews. “It was one of those moments,” you said, “that you take a step back and think about your journey in golf and what’s led you here.”
RM: Yeah, I was getting goosebumps for months just thinking about it. Tiger and I knew we wanted to play together, so we were like, “Who do we get to play with us?” I mean (laughs), how cool was that? You know, to get to know your childhood hero pretty intimately; to be awarded honorary membership of the oldest golf club in the world at the same time; to be standing on the first tee at St Andrews with Trevino and Jack Nicklaus and Georgia Hall … I was like, ‘F**k me! This is my life! This is so cool.’
PK: A week before you played in the JP McManus pro-am in Adare?
PK: And got Covid?
PK: I heard everyone had Covid there?
PK: Go on.
RM: Tiger needed a rest on Wednesday. We had played two days of golf at Adare and the plan was to play Ballybunion on Thursday. I woke up that morning feeling a bit achy but didn’t really think anything of it. JP gave us his chopper and we went down with Seán and Tiger’s manager, Rob [McNamara]. We got around fine, flew back to Adare for lunch and as I’m getting up from the table, I’m sore and stiff and super tired. I said to Erica, “I’m feeling a bit weird. I’m just going upstairs to lie down for a bit.” I slept for maybe two hours and the sweat was just pouring off me, then Erica took my temperature and it was sky high. I rang Tiger: “I’m not feeling so good here.” And he goes, “Oh, I feel okay.” But he texted me at 10 o’clock that night, chills, fever, and I’m like, ‘F*****g hell, I’ve just given Tiger Covid! This is horrendous!’ (laughs) So we both had Covid going into the Open.
RM: I had planned to go to St Andrews early but ended up quarantining at Adare, and it probably took me until the Sunday to start feeling better. If it had happened last year, with everything that was going on in my game, I would have been in a panic, but I was in a good place and thought, ‘I’ll be fine.’ On Tuesday night I went to the Champions Dinner and it was lovely. I was sitting there drinking water and they poured a glass of wine, a lovely 2005 Bordeaux, and I was like, ‘Ahh, I’ll just have a little sip,’ but I couldn’t taste it. The whole week of the Open I didn’t have any taste, and everything smelled like vinegar to me. Everything. It was really strange.
PK: When did it come back?
RM: Probably a week later.
PK: Okay, go to the tournament. There’s a fantastic build-up — the Celebration of Champions, the Champions Dinner — and you make a great start?
RM: Yeah, 66. I played lovely and couldn’t have asked for better, especially the way I was feeling the previous Thursday.
PK: Talk to me about the crowds. Michael Bannon [his coach] tells a story about your first Open at Carnoustie in 2007 and being struck by the chant as he followed you down the 18th: “Ro-ree; Ro-ree; Ro-ree.” You’ve always had that?
RM: I’ve been playing in front of crowds from my amateur days in Ireland. It’s always been a part of golf.
PK: But what about the crowd at St Andrews, because in 32 years as a sportswriter I have never — and certainly never at a golf tournament — felt a crowd react the way they reacted to you at the Open. It wasn’t support. It wasn’t acclaim. It was a deep, visceral longing.
PK: I asked Harry about it and he said, “He’s always had that.” And I said, “No, this was different.” Did it feel different to you?
RM: Yeah, I holed a putt for birdie on the 17th on Friday evening, and the roar was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. It was like 99 per cent of the people in the crowd were for me, and you’d much rather it that way than the opposite, but it brings its own pressures, and its own expectation.
PK: That was my next question. How do you deal with that?
RM: (Laughs) It takes a lot of discipline, and I think willpower, and a lot of mental strength to stay away from it during the week … literally locking yourself in the room.
PK: You were staying in Rusacks, which looks out on the 18th?
PK: And you had the grandstand and that big yellow scoreboard opposite the window of your suite?
PK: And that’s your name at the top on Saturday night?
PK: How did you sleep?
RM: Better than I thought. The suite was at the front but our bedroom was tucked in behind. It was actually a really dark room, and it was lovely being able to leave the windows open at night to get the fresh air in. I woke up early and had breakfast with Poppy at seven, then tried to take a nap between 10 and 11.30 — that’s sort of my routine when the tee times are late. But that nap … I couldn’t sleep. I was just lying there with my eyes shut.
PK: That’s no surprise.
PK: Here’s another thought: It was asking too much for you to win the 150th Open.
RM: Was it though?
PK: The history, the nostalgia, waiting so long, wanted it so badly. It was too much?
RM: I tried not to think about it, and never let myself believe until a brief moment on Sunday.
PK: What was the moment?
RM: I played the front nine very solidly and got myself into decent position. Then I birdied the 10th and I’ve a three-shot lead. That was the moment: ‘Don’t do anything stupid and you’ve got this.’ Then Cam Smith birdied the 11th and started his run, but I still thought: ‘Two ahead, eight holes to go … birdie 12 … birdie 14 … birdie 18 … job done.’ And it would have been job done.
PK: I spoke to Pádraig [Harrington] that night. He said, “Victor [Hovland] was his undoing.”
RM: Because he didn’t play well?
PK: Because you had him covered. He said that if you had been playing with Smith it would have been different.
RM: Or if Victor had made that run and not Cam?
RM: It’s all hindsight, and I feel that’s passing the blame on to someone else. For me it was very simple: there were four up-and-downs that day that I didn’t get, and that was the difference between winning the Claret Jug and not winning it.
Rory McIlroy exhaled as he walked out the back of the interview tent. He’d gamely gone through the wringer of post-round interviews — NBC, Sky Sports, radio, then the larger pool of reporters — with his head held high. He’d talked about how well he’d played. About how much there was to be proud of. It’s not life or death, he said. He almost seemed to believe that. But then he left his final interview and re-entered his actual life, and the weight of what had happened seemed to suddenly, finally hit.
McIlroy’s wife Erica was waiting for him just around the corner, stationed beside a golf cart ready to whisk them away. Up to this point, Rory had kept a strong front. He’d cheered the crowd behind 18. He’d shaken hands, thanked officials, greeted volunteers. He’d answered every question. Now he crumpled into his wife’s arms. The two shared a long embrace, an affirmation that eight years is a long time to carry a heavy burden. That all of this meant exactly as much as it seemed from the outside. And then, as they slid into the back seat of the cart, Rory buried his head in Erica’s shoulder and wept as they drove off into the night.
Dylan Dethier, Golf.com,
July 17, 2022
PK: I was watching Erica as you walked from the 18th. She followed from a distance as you were doing the interviews — she actually stood back so you wouldn’t see her — and was waiting at the buggy to give you a hug. It was a powerful moment, because you had been so controlled and measured to that point, but this was the truth.
PK: Which is not to say you were telling lies.
RN: No, I wasn’t telling lies, and I don’t need to tell anyone how much it means to me, but I think that was certainly the moment …
PK: It hit home?
RM: Yeah, and for Erica too. It’s our life and how we live but most of our conversations don’t revolve around golf, or what I want to win, but this was different. And it’s amazing because you have the first major of the year, and the last major of the year, with basically the same outcome — second at the Masters, third at the Open — and two completely different reactions. And yeah, I mean, what can you say to someone in that position, you know? Erica didn’t need to say anything, she just needed to …
PK: Be there?
PK: Seán was also there.
PK: And also in tears.
PK: What happens when you get on the cart?
RM: We got brought back to that temporary facility that they put together for us, the clubhouse and the lockeroom, and Harry is packing the stuff up. I’m still crying. It’s hard for me to keep my composure.
PK: How’s Harry?
RM: Calm, no emotion ... that’s one thing about Harry, he’s so steady and even-keeled. And it’s obviously a tough loss for him too but he can see the good in it: “Rory, you keep doing this and you’re gonna win your majors.” That was it. “We’re gonna do this.” And it was probably something I needed to hear because you can get sucked into that spiral of, ‘It’s been so long … I’ve just had a great opportunity … Am I ever going to do this?’ But he’s like ...
PK: It’s a step forward?
PK: That’s impressive.
PK: What happened then?
RM: I went back to the hotel. Erica’s parents were there and had just put Poppy to bed and there were more hugs and tears. I didn’t see my parents until the next morning.
PK: I saw them that night in the hotel restaurant.
RM: Yeah, there were a lot of people up there that I knew, but I couldn’t face it. I just couldn’t. I wanted to crawl into a hole. We stayed in the room and ordered some food and a bottle of wine.
PK: What did you talk about?
RM: I’m sure there was a bit of ‘I don’t feel like I did that much wrong.’ Because at that point you start to think about things:
‘I could have got it up-and-down on 3.’
‘I should have made birdie on 9.’
‘I should have made birdie on 12.’
You know, all the shit Erica just doesn’t want to hear. But I give her credit for sitting there and listening to it. I’m sure we tried to watch something on TV to get away from it.
PK: That’s a tough night.
RM: It’s a shit night.
PK: Did you sleep?
RM: I got to sleep quickly. I think that outpouring of emotion coupled with a couple of glasses of red wine knocked me out. But I woke at about three or four that morning and that was it — you’re just lying there wide awake and thinking about it all over again.
PK: When did you see your parents?
RM: The next morning before we headed off. It’s funny, I’m always okay with my dad, but I see my mum and I’m like ‘Waaaah!’ ... floods of tears.
PK: Your dad is interesting. He walks around in the crowd and people are all over him. “Hey Gerry! Gerry!” I don’t know how he deals with it.
RM: He loves it.
PK: I don’t doubt that, but he’s also invested in your every shot, and I’m sure there are days, like that Sunday at the Open, when he’d prefer to be left alone?
RM: I would say him and Michael Bannon know me better as a golfer than anyone else, but especially dad. He knows how I react, feel, when I’m bottling things up. He was all positivity and praise that morning: “Great week Rory. You’re going to have plenty more chances. Keep playing the way you’re playing.” And it means more coming from him than it does from anyone else.
PK: What did your mother say?
RM: Same thing: “Don’t beat yourself up over this. Go and enjoy some time with your family.” Because I was about to have three weeks off. But they’ve been a great example for me. My dad took on three jobs; my mum worked night shifts. They were doing what they had to do to support their son and never complained or moaned. They just got on with it. It’s funny, you never appreciate your parents as much as you should until you have a child of your own, and then you realise …
RM: Well, I’ve always appreciated them, but you don’t remember that part of your life. I don’t remember when I was Poppy’s age, so when I think about what they did, living in that little house in Church View, worrying if they could afford a child, the commitment they showed to make it work. And I’m obviously in a much more fortunate position but I think …
PK: There’s a lesson there?
RM: Yeah, just get on with it.
The PGA Tour has decided to scrap the rest of the Players Championship, and shut down its other tournaments for the next three weeks, over coronavirus fears. The growing crisis has left golfers concerned the Masters will be played behind closed doors, or called off altogether.
The potential for a Masters free from spectators dominated discussion during the first round of the Players Championship, after the PGA Tour imposed a closed-door policy for the final 54 holes at Sawgrass. The PGA later announced that the Sawgrass event has been cancelled.
Jay Monahan, the Tour’s commissioner, revealed he held discussions with President [Donald] Trump, before announcing the initial ban on spectators. Attention has now turned towards the first major of the year, due to tee off on April 9, with an update expected from Augusta National imminently ...
Rory McIlroy, who opened with a 72, said of the Masters: “I don’t see how they can let spectators in if they do play it at this point.”
Ewan Murray, The Guardian,
March 13, 2020
PK: Let’s go back to where we left off last time — the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in February 2020. You finish fifth in the tournament and hit the town with some friends to celebrate your return as world number one.
RM: Yeah, there was me, Harry and Mitchell Tweedie — three boys from Holywood. I thought, ‘Not a lot of people can say they’ve been world number one at anything. I need to celebrate this.’ So we ordered a nice bottle of wine for me and Mitchell, and Harry drank beer for the night.
PK: He’s just gone down in my estimation.
RM: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s the only thing I would change about him. I’m still trying to get him into wine.
PK: A month later, you travel to Sawgrass for The Players [Championship].
PK: What was your first sense of Covid?
RM: My first sense of Covid was the report about those cruise ships parked in the Pacific Ocean outside of San Francisco, and those people coming down with whatever the symptoms were. But the thing that really struck me was … I did a [corporate] thing in Orlando on the Monday of the Players. Donal [Casey, the CEO of Rory McIlroy Inc] had come over and I went to shake his hand and he gives me one of these [a raised elbow] and I’m like, “What are you doing? Shake my hand.” And he goes, “Rory, I’m serious, this isn’t good.” And I was like, “Really?” Because I hadn’t really been paying much attention but he was trying not to touch door handles and stuff.
PK: A wise man, Donal.
RM: Yeah. He has this friend, Ivor, who’s like the smartest man Donal knows, and I think Ivor had been warning him about it for a while. So that was my first sense, and then someone in the NBA got it and it just started to sort of snowball.
PK: What happens at the Players?
RM: I didn’t realise the Tour had cancelled the event on Thursday night. I had some dinner and went to bed, because I was going to be up early for my tee time. I woke up the next morning and showered and got my golf clothes on, and as I’m walking out the door I’m checking my phone: ‘Oh my gosh!’ So I went to the club and packed my stuff into the car and came back down here with Erica. We were like, ‘What are we gonna do?’
PK: It’s the first time you spend “90 days in a row at home” in your adult life.
PK: You’re on Peloton?
PK: You read Range by David Epstein.
PK: “Grabbing a coffee is the highlight of the day.”
RM: (Laughs) I’ve always tried to play this part down because of what was going on in the world, but it was a lovely time for us. Erica was pregnant and we spent a ton of time together. And [Jupiter] remained somewhat open compared to the rest of the world, so we were lucky. We obviously needed to keep ourselves safe, so I would lie by the pool all day listening to podcasts. There was one — a Joe Rogan podcast — and he had a doctor on talking about a study in Sweden that had found that people deficient in Vitamin D were more susceptible to Covid. So I was straight on the phone to my mum and dad, “Get some vitamin D.” But it felt like a mid-career sabbatical in a way. I viewed it as a good thing at a nice time.
PK: A positive thing?
RM: A positive thing for me — obviously it wasn’t a positive thing for the world — but I embraced the fact that I was going to spend time with Erica while she was pregnant, and people didn’t know she was pregnant at the time, which was another blessing.
PK: When did you find out?
RM: On New Year’s Eve at Ashford Castle.
PK: How did you feel?
RM: Over the moon (laughs), and shitting myself at the same time.
RM: Yeah. I think you always say, “I’d love to have a family,” and then when you actually sit down and think about it … it’s a lot. So it was a nice time to be here, and I got into a lovely routine of bed early, up early.
PK: Your first event back is a televised exhibition for charity in May?
RM: At Seminole, yeah.
PK: Then the Tour resumes at Colonial behind closed doors?
RM: Yeah. I had played a lot of golf with Shane [Lowry], but wasn’t focused on practicing, or my game. Michael couldn’t come over for a while with the travel restrictions, and I lost a step or two coming back.
PK: The lack of crowds is another problem. Quote: “The most difficult thing for me without having fans is it just felt so casual. You’re out there playing and it’s sort of just like playing a practice round. That’s the thing I’ve had to get used to, because I play way better on Tour than I do at home.” Harry says he could beat you with no crowds.
PK: So subconsciously it becomes part of your game?
RM: It does. And it focuses you. I’ve always said it: Playing with Tiger is a double-edged sword because he brings the most crowds of anyone and there’s a lot of movement and stuff going on, but you are properly focused the entire time.
PK: The first major of the year is the PGA Championships at Harding Park in August. You’re playing solidly — Tied 32, Tied 41, Tied 11, Tied 32, Tied 47 — but not brilliantly.
RM: Yeah. I played with Tiger the first two days and thought, ‘Maybe it will help me get into it a bit more.’ And I was going back to Harding Park where I won the Match Play, so I was looking forward to it. Harry and I rented a nice house 10 minutes from the course and watched a great show on the five mafia families in New York in the ’70s and ’80s … (laughs) amazing that was the most interesting thing of the week.
PK: A week later you tell the press in Boston about a quote you’ve been sent: “Don’t let your golf influence your attitude, let your attitude influence your golf. I keep letting my golf influence my attitude on the course instead of the other way round.”
PK: So things are starting to slip?
PK: In September, you finish tied eighth to Bryson DeChambeau at the US Open at Winged Foot, who overpowers the course with his length. You’re asked about him: “It’s the complete opposite of what you think a US Open champion does. It’s kind of hard to wrap my head about it.”
PK: And now he’s in your head?
RM: (Laughs) Yeah, it might have been a touch of an ego thing. There was a part of me that thought, ‘Well I can do that too,’ and I started messing around.
PK: When did you start?
RM: Maybe a couple of weeks after that. I went to see Butch Harmon in Las Vegas for a day, just to get a second opinion on a couple of things. Then I played the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek …
PK: Where you’re asked if you’re “doing anything differently because of what Bryson has done.”
RM: Yeah, it was just a bit of speed. The thing about golf is that you’re never going to stay on the same path the whole way — you’re going to veer off on these different little roads — but the trick is to leave a few breadcrumbs on the way so you can find your way back. And maybe I went a little too far down that path, but you start to see progress and these speeds you’ve never had before; and you start to hit it by your playing partners by 30 and 40 yards; and you start feeling good about yourself. What you don’t realise is that your swing is deteriorating.
PK: What’s Harry saying when you’re trying all this?
RM: Harry has his own way. He’ll never disagree with me but he’ll be like (laughs), ‘Maybe we should just go work on your wedges.’ Or, ‘Let’s go work on your putting.’ You know, subtle ways to say, ‘Let’s stop doing this.’
PK: Because you can’t tell Rory what to do?
RM: No, I need to figure it out myself. And I’m aware that can be frustrating for the people around me but …
PK: The Masters is played in November. You start with a 75 and get a bollocking from your friend, Jimmy Dunne.
RM: Yeah, he said something … Again, it was one of those rounds I’ve had at Augusta where I was just so careful and tentative. It’s almost like you have to get a bad one out of the way before you can freewheel.
PK: What did he say?
RM: “Why you being so careful?” Something like that. The weather was bad and we had to come back and finish on the Friday morning. I had a quick warm-up between rounds, but it was a really good warm-up, and I felt a lot more freedom in my swing and played great the rest of the way [tournament].
PK: Was that unusual for Jimmy to intervene?
RM: I’ve known Jimmy for a long time. And I respect him and respect his advice. He plays a ton of golf and has a good eye on the game.
PK: Sure, but there’s not many people who would say that to you.
RM: There isn’t actually, no.
PK: Would it help if there were?
RM: Look, it has to be done the right way. I can take it from someone like Jimmy because he’s outside of the circle a bit, and I’ll take it when it’s inside the circle but I’d have a much easier time telling Sean to f**k off than I would Jimmy Dunne (laughs). I don’t have to listen or accept what he has to say, but I’ll at least let him say it. But I think … that whole back-end of 2020 I was just a bit lost with my game. I’d let my swing get into a place that was quite unpredictable.
PK: Okay, let’s go to 2021.
When your ball finds water on a par four not featuring any lakes, rivers or creeks, you just know you have issues. So it was for Rory McIlroy on the first day of the WGC Dell Match Play, where he drove out of bounds into a resident’s swimming pool on his way to a 6&5 dousing by Ian Poulter.
Back at his Rotherham academy, watching on TV, Pete Cowen, McIlroy’s new coach, witnessed the full scale of his challenge to resurrect the form of the Holywood star in time for the Masters two weeks away. Let’s just say that when McIlroy’s wild hook on the fifth bounced off a cart path over a fence and into the deep end — sunk below an inflatable, just metres from the underwater hoops — Cowen will have realised the task is Olympic-sized.
The ‘two-way miss’ is certainly still at large despite Cowen’s intensive work with McIlroy last week in Florida after the four-time Major winner decided radical action was required and brought in the Yorkshireman over Michael Bannon, the Co Down instructor who had overseen McIlroy’s swing since he was eight.
James Corrigan, The Daily Telegraph,
March 25, 2021
PK: You start the year in Abu Dhabi, your first trip abroad in exactly a year, and finish third to Tyrrell Hatton. You follow it with a Tied 16 at Torrey Pines, a Tied 13 at Phoenix and a missed cut at Riviera.
RM: Yeah, I was leading going into the final round in Abu Dhabi and remember saying to Harry — and there’s a few times this has happened — “There’s no way I would have finished in the top-10 this week in the States.” So even then, I knew, ‘This is not great.’ It felt like I was playing catch-up going into the year. Michael [Bannon] had come over before Christmas, but there wasn’t enough time to bed in what we were trying to bed in. Hindsight is great, but I probably should have skipped those tournaments and had two good months working. But it’s the nature of the game that you feel like you’re falling behind and need to play; and the more you play, the more you revert to what’s comfortable and your bad habits.
PK: Here’s a quote from your Tied 10 finish at Bay Hill in March: “There was some good parts this week ... Some stuff that I don’t know how to describe … just a little dejected … maybe looking to go in a different direction … I need something. I need a spark.” Then you went to the Players.
RM: That’s where it reached breaking point. I played a very bad round of golf on the first day, I think I barely broke 80, and went to the back of the range with Harry. Pete [Cowen] was down there. I said, “Can you have a look at me? I’m f*****g hitting it all over the place here. Tell me what you see.” He had a look and got me to do a couple of things. I hit a ton of balls that Thursday and Friday and missed the cut, but it started to feel a bit better. I thought, ‘I’ll just give this a go and see if it will get me back on track.’
PK: There was a report in The Daily Telegraph eight days later that you were working with Cowen.
PK: You’ve described Michael as a second father. How did you tell him?
RM: It was a difficult conversation, like telling your wife you want to live in different houses for a bit. I said, “I’m going on a different path for a while to figure a few things out, but nothing changes in our relationship.” But I know he was disappointed. It wasn’t handled well.
PK: What do you mean?
RM: Golf is a small world. People talk. Things get out. It got out before I spoke to Michael, which is pretty shite actually.
PK: You’re not a shite person. That’s not your nature.
PK: So how does that happen?
RM: It was a feeling of shame in a way. I felt ashamed that I was going down this other path and didn’t want to confront that part of it. It was like, ‘Wait until you’re pushed into a corner and you have to do it.’ I basically didn’t have the balls to ring Michael and say, “Look, this is what I’m doing.” That’s what it came down to. And thankfully he’s a good man and he understood but … it was a weird period.
PK: Your first ‘official’ tournament with Cowen is the Match Play in Austin. You lose the first match and hit 11 bags (350) of balls on the range.
RM: Yeah, I was beaten by Poulter — f*****g hell! That was a low point.
PK: Then you miss the cut at the Masters?
RM: Yeah, played crap, and then had three weeks off to get into some of the things I was working on with Pete.
PK: You’ve also started working with [sports psychologist] Bob Rotella?
RM: We’d worked together before, in 2010.
PK: But nobody since?
RM: No, self-diagnosis (laughs) — a ton of books.
PK: How was that contact made?
RM: I reached out to him. We sat in The Grove [a private golf club in Jupiter owned by Michael Jordan] for five hours, as long as one of these interviews, and talked about a bunch of things. He brought me an excerpt from a [Ben] Hogan book, four or five paragraphs, about a lightbulb moment Hogan had about the pursuit of perfection. “Don’t go down the road of trying to be perfect,” he said, “because that’s not golf — even Hogan said it.”
PK: Then something extraordinary happens — you win at Quail Hollow. Your first tournament win for 18 months.
RM: Yeah, which was a great thing and a bad thing at the same time, because in my mind it validated what I was doing: ‘I’ve won again. We’re back. We’re on the right path.’ And I did; I hit some good shots down the stretch when I needed to, but I won that tournament with my putting and my short game.
PK: I asked Harry for his three most memorable moments since 2020 and first was that win: “No one mentioned it,” he said, “but the shot he hit off the bank on 18 was one of the best I’ve seen under pressure.”
RM: Yeah, there were no swing thoughts. It was just pure hands and … talent (laughs). It was great to win again, Mother’s Day, Erica is there, and it’s my first win since Poppy was born.
PK: You were clearly elated.
PK: How long did it last?
RM: I think I then played …
PK: You went to Kiawah for the PGA Championship.
RM: Oh yeah, f**k!
PK: So not very long?
RM: Kiawah was the perfect example of where my game was; I’d won the PGA there in 2012 by eight shots, but we got there and I said to Harry: “I don’t remember this course being so difficult.” (Laughs) Ding!
RM: Yeah. I could not for the life of me figure out how to play 10, 11, 12 or 13, because they were strong left-to-right [wind] and the ball was like ... fffffffffffffffffff! (raises his arm). And when I said that to Harry it should have been a …
PK: Lightbulb moment.
RM: Yeah. ‘What’s changed? Why is it more difficult? But I just bunted it around and finished 40th or something. Then it was Memorial, I think.
PK: Tied 18th.
RM: Which again is a decent result, and then it would have been the US Open.
PK: Tied seventh at Torrey Pines.
RM: Yeah, played great the first few days and was tied for the lead on Sunday. I hit a five iron into the 11th, my best swing of the week, and three-putted it. Then I made a double [bogey] at the next and it unravelled from there. That was the thing about that whole period, the good was in there but not consistently enough to contend. Then I played the Irish Open …
RM: Yeah, so bad.
PK: Then a missed cut at the Scottish Open.
PK: And tied 46 at the Open at St George’s.
RM: Yeah, same again. I shot four-under on the front nine at St George’s on Saturday and thought, ‘Okay, go and shoot three-under on the back and you’re back in the tournament again.’ And I go and shoot three-over or whatever it was.
PK: One of Seán’s most memorable moments was meeting you in the locker room after the final round: “The Ryder Cup was the official low point, but I always bring myself back to that moment at St George’s. His confidence was very low. He said, ‘Maybe I’m just not that good anymore and the competition has got better’.”
RM: Yeah, [Collin] Morikawa had just won … you had all these guys coming through — guys I didn’t have to deal with 10 years ago. My confidence was pretty low.
PK: Seán says “the swing torture” was killing you, and that you told Harry you didn’t know what you were doing. “It was nuts,” Seán says. “He’s Picasso! You can’t teach him how to paint!”
RM: (Laughs) Well, there’s a bit of hyperbole there but yeah, I’d been nurtured a certain way, and had never handed the autonomy of my golf game to someone else. But I’d seen other people do it and thought, at that stage of my career, it was what I needed. It was a difficult summer, but I was having what most people would call a decent year, and was starting to think of it that way instead of, ‘It’s decent for most but it’s not good enough for me.’ And I almost needed to hit rock bottom at the Ryder Cup to snap out of it.
All that any sportsman can do after failure on an epic scale is sift through the debris and try to go again. After the tears at the Ryder Cup, and two weeks where his anger and introspection at his performance gave way to a clear thinking plan, Rory McIlroy turned up in Las Vegas and showed once more the most overlooked quality in his considerable repertoire: resilience …
[The CJ Cup] was his 20th title on the toughest circuit in the world and one that ought to give even his detractors pause for thought and think about what he has achieved rather than what he hasn’t. To put that number in perspective, no other European in the last 80 years has come close. Indeed, the only non-American players who have achieved a higher number are Gary Player and Vijay Singh, as McIlroy pulled up alongside the Great White Shark himself, Greg Norman.
Derek Lawrenson, Daily Mail,
October 18, 2021
PK: I have a transcript here from your opening press conference at Whistling Straits and it’s interesting, because there’s no sense of panic about your game, or the gathering storm. Quote: “I feel good. Played well in the last few weeks. Led the season in birdies made on the PGA Tour, so that usually works out pretty good in match play. Yeah, I’m feeling good.”
RM: Yeah, I mean Jesus, you’re going into a team environment and you don’t want to be telling the world, or the other team, or even your teammates: “I’m not feeling great. I’m playing shite.” And I still felt my game was good enough to win matches; I didn’t need to play my absolute best to win a Ryder Cup point. And …when was that press conference?
PK: The Tuesday.
RM: Yeah, so it was the start of the week. And my game was okay. I was coming off a couple of decent finishes, a couple of top-10s but when you get under the pressure of a Ryder Cup you have to really trust what you’re doing.
PK: And you didn’t?
PK: Give me a sense of how things start to unravel.
RM: So, the Covid rules were still in place and they were trying to keep separate bubbles with the teams. Pete was coaching Brooks [Koepka] on the American team, and me on the European team, but was in our bubble for the week, and I don’t want to sit here and throw him under the bus, but I spent so much time with him on the range and got into this technical …
PK: Too many swing thoughts?
RM: Yeah, and my confidence just deteriorated as the week went on.
PK: You play with Poulter on Friday morning and lose 5&3 to [Patrick] Cantlay and [Xander] Schauffele: you play with Shane in the afternoon and lose 4&3 to [Tony] Finau and [Harris] English.
RM: Yeah, didn’t play well at all. It was Shane’s first Ryder Cup and I felt like I’d let him down: Pádraig was the captain and there’s this sense of guilt of not giving him what he needs. It was one of the lower points of my entire career, and my confidence on Friday night was at rock bottom.
PK: It’s your sixth Ryder Cup.
PK: You’re dropped on Saturday morning for the first time ever?
PK: Who told you?
PK: One on one?
PK: How did you feel?
RM: Honestly? Probably relieved. I was relieved I didn’t have to go back out and lose another match, but I was also deflated. When you’re playing a normal tournament and don’t play well that’s fine, it’s on you. But when you’re on a team and letting other people down it’s a different thing altogether. I felt so low, and so shit, and by Saturday night I was done. I didn’t want to see golf again until 2022. Then Pádraig told me he was sending me out [in the singles] at number one.
PK: How did that happen? Because I read somewhere that initially he had you way down the list, and that someone stood up and said, “Rory has to go out at number one.”
RM: I don’t know. It might have happened at the meeting between the vice-captains. I think there was some talk about sending me out at 10, 11 or 12, and that someone — it might have been GMAC [Graeme McDowell] or Thomas [Bjorn] — stood up and said, “Rory needs to play at the top of the order.”
PK: So it wasn’t one of the team?
RM: No, I was told before the meeting, which was a shock to me.
PK: That he was putting you out at number one?
RM: Yeah. ‘F**k! You mean me? Have you seen how I’ve played the last two days!’ But it was a huge vote of confidence in me, and I really appreciated it. We were down pretty heavily on Saturday night and needed some points on the board early. And Xander Schauffele was coming off the back of winning the Olympics, so you’re going up against someone that’s obviously playing well.
PK: Here’s a quote from si.com when the draw is announced: “Rory looks lost, lifeless and completely drained. Schauffele has thoroughly enjoyed himself, and will be rested after sitting out Saturday afternoon. The bright side for Rory: the nightmare is nearly over.”
RM: Yeah, I think Rotella sent me a text message that night; I need to go back through my phone … yeah, here it is: “Trust in your talent. Go play with a free-flowing confidence and a bounce in your step every way.” And I have. I’ve always been a player that plays on momentum and confidence.
PK: But you don’t have any f*****g momentum, and you’ve no confidence!
RM: No, none.
PK: So if that was me I’d have said, “F**k off Bob!”
RM: (Laughs) Yeah, but you need reminders, right? I got up on Sunday and just tried to clear my head: ‘What are you doing? Why are you getting caught-up in this [technical stuff]? Just play golf. Play the way you know.’
PK: You’re sitting in the locker room with Shane on Sunday morning, he’s out at number two, and it’s just the two of you. “You just need to remember who you are,” he says. “You’re Rory McIlroy. You’re one of the greatest players of all time and you’re not even close to being finished yet.”
RM: (Smiles) He’s great.
PK: Sure, but how do you react to something like that? Because he means well and he’s trying but Jesus! It’s just … words.
RM: (Laughs) I think it boils down to what Rotella says, or Seán with his Picasso thing: I need to trust my talent. For a long time I resented that tag, the ‘talent’ tag, because it gives the impression you don’t work hard. And I hate that, because I work really hard. So I was going to show people. It was ego. I wanted recognition for everything:
‘Oh! He’s a hard worker!’
‘Oh! He can hit it a long way!’
‘Oh, He can putt well!’
And I almost went too far.
PK: You beat Schauffele, take two weeks off and win the CJ Cup in Las Vegas. Here’s a quote from your press conference: “There was a lot of reflection the last couple of weeks and this is what I need to do. I just need to play golf, I need to simplify it, I need to just be me. I think for the last few months I was maybe trying to be someone else to try to get better and I sort of realised that being me is enough and being me, I can do things like this.”
RM: Yeah, I really think that Sunday at the Ryder Cup was instrumental in getting back to world number one, and doing the things I’ve done this year: ‘Everyone says you’re the most talented golfer in the world. Why don’t you start acting like it?’