It's a sad indictment of our business these days that interviews with global superstars are generally not worth the paper they're written on. Ask Greg Baum.
This is a premium article
Premium articles will soon be available only to Independent.ie subscribers.
A couple of weeks ago, Baum — one of Australia's best sportswriters — was offered exclusive access to Rafael Nadal on the eve of the Australian Open. The offer was, he noted, subject to some terms and conditions.
"The interview would last 10 minutes, 15 max. The questions to be asked would have to be submitted in advance. And one would have to be about a travel insurance agency that is sponsoring Nadal . . . But, wait, there was more. The subsequent story would have to carry a tagline at the end noting Nadal's involvement with the sponsor."
"That's not all, far from it. The story would have to include a high-res image from the insurance company's campaign. That is, it's ad, dressed up as editorial. It would also have to include a picture of Nadal at a press conference taken against the backdrop of the company's ‘branded media wall'."
And the legend, Roger Federer?
How about this?
He's midway through a one-on-one with the Australian author, Chloe Hooper, a couple of years ago, when a publicist from one of his many sponsors gives the writer a nudge: "You only have five minutes. So if you can include the Moet questions?"
Hooper is suddenly queasy, but a deal is a deal: "So, do you drink a lot of Champagne?" she inquires.
"Selectively, in certain moments," Federer says. "I like to celebrate more today. When I was younger I was running from one thing to the next . . . but today I try to savour moments more. Not only on the tennis court, it's also when I catch up with friends. There's also something to celebrate and then I try to open a bottle of Moet et Chandon."
The publicist wants more: "Maybe you can talk about the 2004 vintage and why that's so important and special to you?"
"In 2004, I became world No. 1," Federer says. "It's the one I try to open whenever it's a really big occasion for me, so that's my favourite."
But we've all been there.
I once spent a day following Michael Schumacher around a petrochemical plant in Germany and didn't even get to ask a question. Actually no, there was one: So Michael? What is it about Shell that you admire so much?
And then there was the 23-hour trip to Jamaica for the 40-minute exclusive with Usain ‘Puma' ‘Puma' ‘Puma' Bolt, and his five ‘Puma' ‘Puma' ‘Puma' flunkies. Ménage à trois was never my thing but it beats the hell out of a six-on-one.
So how do you explain Rory?
Three years ago, when we first sought to interview him on a cold December morning at The Merrion Hotel in Dublin, we were ushered to his bedroom, plied with coffee and croissants for hours, and invited to get back in touch if there were any further questions.
When we sat down with him again recently at his beautiful home in Holywood, the conditions hadn't changed. No question was off limits. No subject was out of bounds. No products were plugged or sponsors appeased. It was a unique insight to a unique man and the golfer of the decade.
1 That feeling
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.'
Sunday Independent, January 15, 2017
Paul Kimmage: Let's start with something you said last time. Do you still look out the window for Holywood as you're coming down the Lough?
Rory McIlroy: Still come down the Lough, still look out the window and, yeah, it's different than coming into land at West Palm (his home in Florida). I don't think I'll ever be anonymous again, but I'm as anonymous as I can be over there, but here it's . . . I look out at the Lough and I can see my mum and dad's house, and my friends' houses, and the school I went to, and the church I had communion in, and the first bar I had a drink in — all of those memories that stay with you. There's a different feeling, something inside you, a sense of belonging.
PK: It's harder to be anonymous here?
RM: For sure. I didn't know if you took milk in your coffee so I had to go and get milk this morning, and toilet roll (laughs), I didn't have any toilet roll! So I went to the local garage and (posed for) three photos on the way out. So it's a little more difficult. I think as well . . . I used to spend more time here and people got used to me, and now I don't spend as much time here and it's more of a novelty when I'm around.
PK: You were in Dublin yesterday?
PK: How anonymous were you there?
RM: Dublin's more of a cosmopolitan city. It's bigger, more people, and there's more going on. But it's still Ireland. And there's still a sense I'm one of their own. It's funny, I met Shane (Lowry) in Brown Thomas for a coffee, and there's this Santa going through the store (with a mic) and he recognises both of us and goes (laughs), ‘Oh! There's a couple of golfers . . .'
PK: That's mad.
RM: Is it?
PK: That you were both having coffee in Brown Thomas? Absolutely.
RM: Yeah, well, I've never tried to shut myself off from the outside world. I always want to be able to do what I want to do, and I think I've been able to find a good balance with that. I've seen what Tiger's life is like. I can be somewhat anonymous in Palm Beach, but you go and meet up with him and it's just a different level. And I'm not saying I don't want success because I don't want that, I just feel I've been able to have a nice balance so far.
PK: It's been a while since you were home for Christmas.
RM: Yeah, I guess it was the last time we did the interview in 2016. I spent '17 in Rochester with Erica's family and then last year, because I was playing in Hawaii in January, I didn't want to come back and have to go all the way over there. I see my mum and dad all the time but it's nice to see my aunts and uncles and cousins, because the times I do come home — like this year at Portrush or before at the Irish Open — you don't have much time.
PK: You didn't play the Irish Open this year.
PK: And took a lot of shit for it.
PK: How did that impact on you?
RM: It was a little difficult. I didn't think it was the best preparation going into the Open, I wanted to play the week before but look, everything is 20/20 in hindsight.
PK: Because in hindsight you probably would have played?
RM: Yeah, because the course at the Scottish Open wasn't preparation at all, really. But I wanted to keep busy — and that was the thing as well — I wanted to play the week before to keep busy and take my mind off what was coming up. So I made the decision to play the week before but not to play Ireland, because Portrush was the third week and there was a chance of bad weather and it's links and you're tired and . . .
RM: But yeah, there was some backlash, 'Aww, it's the one time of the year we can get to watch him play', but two weeks later I'm playing up the road. And I know it's a long way from Lahinch to Portrush, and that tickets were harder to get, but it wasn't as if I was saying I was never going to play the Irish Open again, it was this (one time) I was going to do something else. So yeah, that was tough and I didn't want to . . .
PK: There was a lot you could have said.
RM: Yeah, I could have talked about where the Irish Open was five years ago (when he stepped in to host the event) but that was a lot to do with Keith Pelley and the European Tour and the commitment they were making, so I wasn't going to take all the credit. So I played Scotland and kept busy and it led into Portrush.
PK: You played a practice round in Portrush before travelling to Scotland.
RM: Yeah, on the Saturday.
PK: When did you fly in?
RM: That morning.
PK: Down the Lough?
RM: Down the Lough.
PK: What's going through your mind as you're looking out the window?
RM: Excitement, anticipation. I'd seen pictures of Portrush and how it was looking. My friends had played it and had seen all the infrastructure going up, and the stands on 18, and it was unrecognisable from the Portrush that I grew up playing in the North (North of Ireland Championship). And I thought it was going to be different, but I played that afternoon and felt good. It was still Portrush at the end of the day.
PK: You played on your own?
RM: I went up with Harry (his caddie, Harry Diamond), and Michael (his coach, Michael Bannon). Harry had already been up and was doing his homework, 'They've put this bunker in on the left on two. Maybe you shouldn't hit driver.' I was like, 'Okay. I get that, fine.' So we were going through all that and it just felt like we were getting ready to play the Open.
PK: There was no reminiscing or emotional stuff?
RM: No, not particularly. I think walking up 18 we were sort of imagining, ‘Jesus! This is going to be . . .' But I was just going about my business, preparing and getting a feel. I went to the Scottish Open and played okay and yeah, everything leading up to it was . . . I didn't feel this burden at that point. I was trying to play it down. I think my last five Opens had all been top five. I'd had a chance to win in Carnoustie. So I was feeling good.
PK: But trying to play it down?
PK: You said "the burden at that point".
PK: At what point did that change?
RM: Emmm . . .
PK: You got back from Scotland on the Sunday night?
RM: Yeah, and I don't think I played, I went up on Monday and hit a few balls, played Tuesday, played nine holes Wednesday, and I'm sure even at that point, if you go back to my press conference, I was saying, ‘It's wonderful and great for the country and it will be huge.'
PK: Yes, you were.
RM: But I'm still, in my mind, trying to play it down.
PK: So up until Wednesday everything is . . .
PK: Go with Thursday morning.
RM: So first tee shot . . . On the Wednesday practice round the weather wasn't great and I might have hit a three wood right and that two iron left or something, but it was fine. It was okay. So we get to Thursday and there's a bit of a breeze blowing but it's not too bad.
PK: You're nervous?
PK: But you're always nervous?
RM: Yeah, I'm always nervous, but on the range I felt good, had a good warm-up, then started feeling it on the putting green before going to the first tee. Michael was there. I hit my final putt and shook his hand, 'See you'. Then you go up and over the bridge, and the way they do it at the Open almost feels like a ring walk for a boxer. People are cheering. You come down the steps and through a tunnel and onto the tee box, and there's this massive ovation. And I'm like, 'Woah!' That was the first time I felt it, 'Jesus, this is huge!' And I hadn't prepared myself for it. I had prepared for the golf, and the golf course, but I hadn't prepared for that feeling. And I don't know if I could have prepared for that feeling.
PK: Were you not preparing by playing it down?
RM: That's what I was trying to do, but I was overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed by the support. I looked up and just thought, 'Holy shit!' So that was the moment and then nervous, real nervous.
PK: But you'd had those nerves before.
RM: Yeah, but this is different.
PK: Because it's home?
RM: Yeah, home. It comes back to that. There's a connection there I don't think you get with anywhere else — even talking about it now I'm getting goose bumps (laughs). But that was the moment. You walk onto the tee and get this ovation and you're like, 'Wow!' And then the nerves or anticipation or anxiety or whatever it was . . .
RM: You know there's a part of me . . . I said to Harry before the first tee shot, "Four iron?" I had played the two iron the week before in Scotland and wasn't fully comfortable with it but four iron wasn't the right club. He said, "Two iron is not reaching the bunker. Hit the two iron." And I said, "Okay."
2 'It's in my nature'
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 the world number 1 again and king of all he surveyed. But the moment that lingered was his hurt at Wentworth.
Rory McIlroy was only human.
Sunday Independent, January 15, 2017
PK: Let's go back to 2014 and the start of that incredible run after the break-up at Wentworth. You win the Open, the Bridgestone, and the PGA, and Shane Ryan writes a book, Slaying the Tiger, with this brilliant passage about what a cold-blooded killer you've become: "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 the 'Shark' nickname was wasted on Greg Norman, because Tiger and Rory are the ones who can truly smell blood."
PK: I read that for you last time, and suggested it runs contrary to you as a person.
PK: And it does?
PK: You made a point about these almost two separate lives that you lead: "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." And you laughed. "Because that's who I need to be to achieve my goals."
PK: You've heard of the movie The Crying Game?
PK: There's this great scene where Forest Whittaker tells Stephen Rae a story. It goes like this. A scorpion wants to cross a river but he can't swim, so he goes to a frog, who can, and asks for a ride. The frog says, "If I give you a ride on my back you'll go and sting me!" The scorpion replies, "It would not be in my interest to sting you since, as I'll be on your back, we both will drown." The frog thinks about this logic for a moment and accepts the deal, takes the scorpion on his back and braves the waters. Halfway over he feels a burning spear in his side and realises the scorpion has done him after all. As they both sink beneath the waves, the frog cries out, "Why did you sting me, Mr Scorpion? For now we both will drown." The scorpion replies, "I can't help it. It's in my nature."
PK: So that's what I'd like to explore. This internal battle if you want between being the scorpion and the frog.
RM: (Laughs) Jeeze. Yeah. I think if you put me in a setting where I have an outlet to be competitive I want to be the best, like I did a spin class yesterday and I wanted to ride the most miles. And as time goes on I'm getting more competitive — it would seem the other way, that when you're older you should mellow out, but I'm getting more competitive for whatever reason that is.
RM: I can't be like that all the time, because that compromises who I am and what I believe off the golf course. I have a great outlet to be competitive and that's golf. And I pride myself on the fact that I'm one of the best players in the world. But there are times where that can spill over and . . .
PK: How does it compromise who you are?
RM: I think I've always needed this separation between who I am and what I'm like on the golf course, and who I try to be away from the golf course. Because I know that being that person (the competitor) outside of a golf environment would take up way too much mental energy and I'd basically be a narcissist. I'd be thinking about myself the whole time.
RM: And that's not a great way to go through life.
PK: That doesn't stop 99 per cent of your contemporaries?
RM: But I think that's . . . is it self-awareness?
PK: It is.
RM: And a sense of what's right and wrong. Dermot Desmond said a great thing to me a few years ago, "Know thy self."
PK: That takes a while.
RM: And it's the thing that differentiates us from every other animal or mammal on the planet. We have a conscience. We question ourselves. So I do a lot of inward reflection.
PK: Were there times or moments when you didn't separate them?
RM: Yeah, there were moments.
PK: Early on?
RM: Yeah, early on. I look at some other people and it seems their career is all they have, and I never want to be that person. I don't want to define myself by being the best golfer in the world. I want to be a good son, a good husband, a good friend, that's the . . . the more important things.
RM: And again, that's a sense of right and wrong and how you were brought up.
PK: Let's take that chronologically and tease it out for a bit, because there have been some changes in the last three years since we last sat down. The month was January 2017 and you were just about to travel to the South African Open.
PK: And you picked up, was it a rib injury?
RM: Yeah, basically. It was stiffness in the thoracic spine and then, basically, the facet joint locked up and the only thing that could move was the rib. And the rib is not supposed to move so then it's a stress fracture. But it wasn't from the rib, it was actually from tightness in the thoracic spine.
PK: And you didn't play for seven weeks.
PK: And it actually compromised most of your season.
RM: It did, yeah.
PK: Even though you didn't allude to that fact.
RM: (Laughs) Yeah, it was . . . ‘17 was tough because I went down to South Africa and felt it go on the driving range on Wednesday. And I didn't want to pull out of the tournament, so I got some treatment and they're beating my back to shit not knowing that I've basically a broken rib. And I end up nearly winning full of (smiles) — you're not going to like this — anti-inflammatories just trying to get through it.
PK: So long as it wasn't steroids!
RM: No, no steroids, just a few painkillers. I went to Dubai the next day and had an MRI and a CAT scan and they said, "Ahh, you've a stress fracture." So I pulled out of the tournament and rehabbed it and did all the right things and came back and played well in Mexico (7th), and Bay Hill (4th), and actually had a decent little stretch.
PK: Seventh at the Masters.
RM: Yeah, and then it went again on the Monday of The Players Championship. I had just signed a deal with TaylorMade, and was hitting a few drivers for a photo shoot and felt it, ‘Oh no!' And again, I'm compromised because . . .
PK: You've just signed this new deal?
RM: Yeah. It's TaylorMade . . . there's a photo shoot . . . it was a big week for everything. But I got through it (35th) and took a few weeks off and probably came back too soon at the US Open (missed cut), but basically played with that injury for the rest of the year.
PK: You had just got married to Erica.
PK: Your wife is interesting. She's not front of house.
RM: (Laughs) Noooo.
PK: But she sees a lot from the back of the house. This is from a piece by Ewan Murray before the Masters: The most astute observations about elite sport do not always come from those competing. It was Rory McIlroy's wife, Erica, who delivered a perspective on the Masters that resonated with one of the world's finest golfers. "She put it like this: it's like when you are a kid and you go to Disneyland and you think it is the only place in the world," McIlroy says. "When you are at Augusta that week, it's the only place in the world. You drink the punch, everyone is wearing their Masters gear. It's like Disney with your mouse ears."
PK: "You leave on Sunday night and all of a sudden you snap out of it. The week passed so quickly and you were in a daze because of the whole Augusta thing. You have got to strip that all away. It's a golf course. It's a golf tournament." Yeah, interesting. And so true.
RM: It's very true.
PK: Just give me a sense of her, influence I suppose.
RM: I read a great book recently, the new one by Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers. There's a chapter in it about Bernie Madoff and that whole Ponzi scheme. On one side you've got the naïve and the gullible, 'We don't know how this thing works but it's making us a ton of money'. And on the other side you've got the mathematicians and the cynics, 'This cannot work'. I'm definitely more on the gullible side, and I wouldn't say Erica is a cynic but she's a sceptic. She's sceptical. But I think we balance each other out.
PK: You must have had a job winning her over?
RM: (Laughs) That's what I always say, "How am I so perfect?" But it's all good. She's very protective of me and sees it from a different angle.
PK: What's very protective?
RM: Emmm, she doesn't want me being taken advantage of, knowing my nature.
PK: So she says no for you?
RM: (Laughs) Yeah, a lot. Yeah, that's what it is.
PK: Okay so you've just got married and you're having this tough period professionally?
RM: Yeah, but I guess that made it easier.
PK: Did it? I was wondering.
RM: Yeah, it did. We bought our house — or the house we've just moved into — and started renovating and all that stuff. And after three years in Monaco, and four in Dubai, I was making the transition to full-time resident in the States. So I guess there was a lot going on.
3 'You're Rory McIlroy! What the fuck are you doing?'
"I feel the longer I've played, the more my self-belief's sort of wavered a little bit. When I was 10 years old I thought I was the best player on the planet . . . obviously I still feel like, on my day, I'm the best player in the world, but there's a lot of competition out here and it's . . . yeah, there's times you doubt yourself."
Rory McIlroy, May 9, 2017
PK: There were a couple of signs that summer that your self-belief was wavering.
RM: Self-belief and confidence is a very fragile thing.
PK: Here's a quote from your press conference a day before the Open at Birkdale: "I think golf is more mental than physical at the end of the day. If you believe in what you're doing and you believe in yourself, it's half the battle."
PK: But you go out in the first-round and . . .
RM: Yeah, I bogeyed the first five.
PK: And you're walking to the sixth tee and JP (his former caddie, JP Fitzgerald) says: "You're Rory McIlroy! What the fuck are you doing?"
RM: Yeah, that was . . . (pauses)
PK: Go on.
RM: It's mad, I know exactly why I started the way I did that Thursday at Birkdale. I was playing in the afternoon at two or whatever it was, but I woke up at seven, turned on the golf, (laughs) and the first shot I saw on TV was Mark O'Meara hitting it out of bounds. I was like, 'Jeeze! That's not a great tee shot!' I probably watched about two to three hours of the coverage that morning. 'Jeeze! I never thought of missing it there.' 'Jeeze! There's a bunker there?' 'Phhh! It looks tough out there.' And it put me in a very defensive mindset.
RM: I knew there was no one shooting great scores and all of a sudden, I'm standing on the first tee thinking about Mark O'Meara hitting it out of bounds! I obviously had the worst start possible and, if anything, what JP said freed me up. It was, 'Jeeze! You know what you can do! Go and do it!' And I (bounced) back and shot 71 which was really nice.
RM: I always knew the mental side was important, but I didn't have a structure. I had a structure around how I practised, hitting balls, chipping, putting, I had a structure around going to the gym. I had a routine, things I did, but I didn't have a structure around the mental side of the game. I was basically leaving it to chance. Some weeks, when I was feeling great — the US Open in '11, the PGA in '12, even when I won in '14 — it worked. And other weeks, it didn't. And that's the difference between then and now.
PK: When did that change?
RM: It started probably . . . I'll tell you when it started. It started after playing with Tiger at the Tour Championship when he won, so in '18. That's when I came to the realisation that I needed to address this.
PK: So over a year later?
PK: Stay with JP. You finish fourth at Birkdale, and his reward for speaking up is the sack?
RM: Yeah but before . . .
RM: No, I want to clear that up. I knew before (Birkdale) it was going to be his last week. And because I knew it, it was almost the reason I gave the media that nugget (‘You're Rory McIlroy!') about what he did for me. So that's where that came from — almost a guilty conscience — knowing what was coming.
PK: At what stage did you decide you needed a change? Because there was a lot going on — your back injury, the equipment change — that wasn't related to him?
RM: I don't want to throw him under the bus but there were a few things that happened in '17 that were just . . . I think both people in a relationship like that can get complacent, and I think there was a bit of complacency, so I decided after the Masters it was probably time. I was getting very hard on him. Really hard. Really angry.
PK: Where's that coming from?
RM: It was partly to do with him and mostly to do with me. I wasn't playing the best and was frustrated at myself and taking it out on him: "I'm fucking trying hard here!" And whether that was (related) to a club I'd hit, or wanted to hit or . . . but it was not good. And it's something I would never do with Harry. Never.
PK: Because you wouldn't be the easiest person to caddie for?
RM: Explain that (smiles) . . . from your experience?
PK: Okay, so I'm standing on the 11th fairway at the Masters in 2016. You've hit your drive right, and into the trees, and the obvious play, at least to me, is to . . .
RM: Chip it out, yeah.
PK: But you decide to take it on and make a double bogey. So I'm thinking, 'What's JP playing at?' Because if I'm your caddie I'm saying, 'Stop fucking around Rory and chip it out.'
RM: Yeah, yeah.
PK: But a year later, I'm standing in the exact same spot with Michael (Bannon). And I say, "Michael, what was JP playing at here last year? Why didn't he tell Rory to chip it out?" And Michael says: "Ooooh, you can't tell Rory what to do."
RM: (Laughs) Yeah, well, there's a bit of that. I need to figure it out myself. That's always been my way so yeah, I get your point. I'm stubborn. Guilty as charged I guess.
RM: I was thinking more about things like clubbing me but yeah, when I get myself into certain situations like that — and I'm going to reference this with ‘in the past' — I could be a bit pig-headed.
PK: In the past?
PK: So that's changed?
RM: It has.
In case you missed it: Paul Kimmage's previous interviews with Rory McIlroy...
Harry Diamond will remain Rory McIlroy's caddie into the 2018 season, the Guardian can reveal, closing the door on one of the most lucrative and courted positions in the game . . . Diamond is McIlroy's best friend and a decorated amateur player in his own right. He caddied for the four-time Major champion for seven events in 2017 during widespread speculation as to where McIlroy would turn next following the end of a long-time alliance with JP Fitzgerald.
Ewan Murray, the Guardian, Dec 8 2017
PK: Tell me about Harry.
RM: I met Harry on the putting green at Holywood golf club when I was seven years old. It would have been the summer of 1996. He was 12.
PK: That's a big gap to become friends?
RM: Yeah, I was an only child and Harry was a big brother. That's sort of how it felt growing up — a big brother's influence on a little brother. He was the one that introduced me to alcohol; the one that introduced me to girls . . .
PK: So you were caddying for him in a sense?
RM: Well I actually did.
RM: Yeah, I caddied for Harry when he won the Ulster Boys in 2002.
PK: That's mad.
RM: He was a good player, Irish international, won the West (West of Ireland Championship), played in an Irish Open. That's the back story that people don't know. Harry was my best man. We're very close. I love having him on the bag. I'm a different person. And I'm never going to give him shit even if something goes wrong. It would not be worth it.
PK: It was a trial initially?
RM: Yeah, a temporary thing. The rib was still bothering me and I couldn't keep going. I needed to fix it. I was going to play Akron, the PGA, the FedEx Cup, the British Masters, Dunhill and that was it. So I said, "Would you do these last few events for me?" He said, "Love to." I think at that stage I was still in the top three in the world, and the first two days at Akron we're playing with Jason Day and Jordan Spieth — so 1, 2, 3 in the world — and Harry's like (laughs), "Jeeze! You're throwing me in at the deep end!"
RM: But he knows golf, and he learnt the ropes very quickly. So we went on and I played okay, fifth in Akron, 20th at the PGA, and then nearly got a win at the British Masters (laughs) until 'Dunners' (Paul Dunne) shot 63 and chipped in at the last! Then, after the Dunhill, Erica and I went on a sort of second honeymoon. We drove around Italy and the south of France and I had a bit of time to reflect. It was lovely. I came back and started to rehab and get myself healthy, and was very, very disciplined leading up to '18.
PK: What about a caddie?
RM: I was looking around but I wanted to keep Harry on the bag. A caddie to me has always been someone that you need to have a good relationship with and I had this great relationship with Harry but I didn't know if he wanted to do it. He's still involved in the running of his dad's business and has a lot going on back here. It's a nice life. He was doing well.
PK: What was the conversation?
RM: The conversation was, 'I know it was on a temporary basis but I'd love you to keep doing it. I think we can really achieve something.' I wanted him to feel fully invested and part of the journey too.
PK: Go to 2018.
RM: Started great. I had a chance to win in Abu Dhabi (third) and should have won in Dubai (second) — I was two ahead with seven to play.
RM: Yeah, played well, didn't go to Mexico, played Honda and Tampa and didn't play great. Michael will tell you my swing probably still wasn't where we wanted it to be. But the thing that was letting me down the most was the putting.
PK: And it was after Tampa that you started working with Brad Faxon?
RM: Yeah, I spent three hours with him at The Bear's Club before heading to Orlando on the Monday of Bay Hill.
PK: Go on.
RM: Well, two hours were like this — just chatting and having a coffee. Then we went out to the putting green for an hour. It was really windy and I said to him, "Jeeze, if it was this windy I probably wouldn't practice my putting." He said, "Do you not putt when it's windy? Do you not play on days like this?" And I said, "Yeah, I guess you're right."
RM: He's very intuitive. He says, "From outside looking in, it looks like you're a ‘feel' player. Would you like to have that in your putting?" I said, "Well, one thing I've found is that my putting has never matched up to the rest of my game. I've been wooden and technical on this side, and free-flowing on the other." He said, "You just have to know what to work on — bring your putter, a sand wedge and a five wood." So we went onto the putting green and he got me to putt from eight feet. I hit three putts with the putter and holed one of them; three with the sand wedge and holed two of them; and I holed three in a row with the five wood.
PK: That's mad.
RM: He says, "I wanted to prove something to you. A lot of putting nowadays is very technical and mechanical — you have to have the right length putter with the right lie and the right loft. That thing (the five wood) has 19 degrees (loft) and is about ten inches too long and you've just holed three in a row. That's what you need to get back to. It needs to be instinctive." And it was such a massive flip. We had that one session on Monday afternoon and I went to Bay Hill and had the best putting week of my career.
PK: And your first win in over a year.
PK: How did that feel?
RM: It was obviously great, but the person I could not have been more happy for was Harry, because he had only been on the bag a few months and was getting a lot of flak.
PK: And there's a real buzz as you head to the Masters and a hope that this could be the year.
5 'Turn it off!'
Augusta, Ga. — One round now separates Rory McIlroy from one of golf's most elite constituencies. If on Sunday he can reel in Patrick Reed, the Masters 54-hole leader, McIlroy will become the sixth man — and the first since Tiger Woods in 2000 — to complete a career grand slam . . . The pairing of Reed and McIlroy will be a special treat in the banquet that is Masters Sunday. At a 2016 Ryder Cup singles match at Hazeltine National, Reed and McIlroy electrified the crowd before Reed eked out a 1-up victory.
McIlroy may be the one going for a career grand slam, but he slyly cast Reed, who played college golf at nearby Augusta State, as the one who will have to stare down all the pressure. "He's got to go out and protect that lead," McIlroy said. With a smile, he added. "Patrick's going for his first Major title, and I'm going for something else."
PK: I'm going to play you a clip from The Golf Channel (Live from the Masters), but I need you to clarify something. In your interviews straight after the final round you said you'd had a good warm-up before walking to the first tee.
RM: Hmmm, didn't warm up great. I had a left miss on the range that I didn't have the rest of the week.
PK: Yeah, that's what you said later.
RM: I didn't want to make excuses.
PK: Okay here's the clip…
(He listens as Rich Lerner, Brandel Chamblee, Frank Nobilo, and David Duval analyse his round.)
RM: (smiles) Very perceptive of Brandel.
PK: He's making the key points?
RM: Yeah, and Duval has made a couple as well. (He looks wounded.)
PK: Feel free to throw it (the laptop) out the window.
RM: No, it's fine. It hurts when you're on the receiving end sometimes but I think Brandel is one of the smartest guys in golf. He's brilliant. I like him. He's given me a book on Bobby Locke . . . I have it here.
PK: Does it help to listen to that?
RM: No it doesn't help. I felt my heart rate go up by about 20 beats a minute. He said something at the end about amnesia and it's true — you need to be able to forget those things. I haven't thought about that tee shot at Augusta (since) and it just rekindles those feelings, the anxiety, the fact that my big miss on the range that day was left, and the first drive I hit went 40 yards right. It's like, ‘Jesus!'
PK: What's happening here?
RM: Yeah. Subconsciously, you know you're missing it left so you're guarding against that, and maybe you'll hit one that will go in the bunker on the right but not . . .
PK: That far?
PK: And is he right? "You do not forget that tee shot?" Does that make everything that follows more difficult?
RM: Yes. I was very, very tentative with my swing that day. I was guarding against the left (miss) I had on the range and started missing it right. The wedge shot on three was a weak right. The five iron on five was a weak right. I think six was similar. Everything was right.
PK: A phrase often used — and I've heard you use it — is 'win or learn.'
PK: Is there nothing you can learn from that clip?
RM: No. I can't learn from other (opinions). I need to learn from my own voice. It's about me: 'You can't tell Rory what to do.' I need to work it out myself. It's one of the reasons I don't watch or listen or . . .
PK: Did you stop watching after Birkdale?
RM: I haven't watched . . . How about this? The final round of The Players in Sawgrass this year. There's a little eating area off the locker room which is just for the players and I go in and sit down and there's maybe five other players having lunch, Jason Day, Webb Simpson, Tommy Fleetwood . . . There's four TVs in the place and that's (The Golf Channel) on. And it's not even the (live feed), it's these boys talking about us before (we go out)! I'm like, 'Boys! What are you doing? This is no good for anyone. Turn it off!'
PK: (Laughs) How did they react?
RM: It was more a request to the staff. I certainly didn't want to see any of it. I was just perplexed as to why they would be watching that particular channel before playing a pretty big final round. I made a promise to myself after Birkdale in '17 that I was never going to watch the coverage before I play.
PK: What about Chamblee's point about the press conference the night before and what you said about Patrick Reed?
RM: I was deferring the pressure?
RM: Yeah, I knew what I was doing in a way. I think I was trying to kid myself that (because) he went to Augusta State (he would have all the support) but I remember I got to the first tee first and one of the starters there, a man named Toby Wilt, shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said, "We really hope you get it done today." And I'm like, Fuck! (laughs) So you can't get away from it. But yeah, I was trying to defer a bit of the pressure away but, again, I've learned from that. I have to embrace that. I can't try to back away from it.
PK: The pressure?
RM: I don't know if pressure is the right word.
PK: The expectation?
RM: The anticipation or . . .
PK: The investment people are making in you?
PK: And that you're making in yourself?
PK: Was it the most disappointed you had been since 2011?
PK: You started meditation?
RM: I started to do some guided meditations. I remember doing them at Ballyliffin at the Irish Open and Carnoustie (the Open) in July, and through that whole summer. At that point I had played in a few final groups and hadn't got the best out of myself, ‘Why was I feeling tentative and tight when it mattered?' Because there had been times when I hadn't felt that way.
PK: At Hoylake and Akron and Valhalla, when you went out and just did it: Bang! Bang! Bang!
RM: Yeah, but that's a recency thing as well. ‘I've just done it. I believe in myself.' Then you're knocked a little and all of a sudden . . .
RM: You do it once and you ride the wave but it's not certain the wave is going to keep going. That's what putting a structure around the mental side is about — you're trying to make that wave last a bit longer. And again, it has to come from me. I need to figure this out for myself. It's not me listening to a psychologist saying, ‘Breathe and do this'. I need to take it on board.
RM: I've an innate need to take ownership of everything and make it my idea, even when Michael gives me something in my swing (laughs). For whatever reason that's how it is.
PK: Whose idea was the juggling?
RM: That was through Faxon again. He goes to this facility in Jupiter called the Central Institute of Human Performance and knew a guy there . . .
PK: Clayton Skaggs?
RM: Yeah. Clayton has spent a lot of time around high performing individuals and teams and I went down and he said, "Have you ever tried juggling? It's one of the few exercises that works both sides of your brain." So I get these balls and I'm trying to juggle them — and I've never juggled before in my life — but I've picked it up pretty quickly.
PK: When was that?
RM: That was the week before the Tour Championship.
PK: Where you're playing with Tiger in the final round?
PK: You were at the Ryder Cup a week later and I remember your press conference vividly. You were asked about Tiger's win (his first in five years) and I've never seen you react like that. You didn't engage with the questions at all?
RM: Yeah, so, it's the Tour Championship and I've got myself into another final group and I'm playing with Tiger Woods. It's something you dream about growing up, final round, big tournament, Tiger Woods. I didn't know if I would ever get this opportunity. It's what I've always wanted to do. Brilliant.
PK: You had played together a year earlier on Thanksgiving.
RM: Yeah, me, my dad, Tiger and Rob McNamara (a friend of Woods').
PK: But now it's for real?
RM: Yeah. I think I was maybe two or three behind, and that's another thing with all these final groups — I was never in the lead. I was always playing catch-up, but that's beside the point. It's the final group, Tiger, and I just want to give a really good account of myself. To take the fight to him. To make him work for it.
RM: If he wins . . . well, it's not great, but it's good for the game. And I understand the bigger picture, but I'm going to make him earn it. And I never made him earn it. That's what bothered me. And what bothered me even more was I came away (thinking), ‘I know I can play better than that. I know I can beat him.' But I'd made it too much about him, and not enough about me.
PK: In your mind?
RM: Yeah, it was an opportunity to beat Tiger Woods and go down the stretch with him. 'This mythical creature in the red shirt'. And I just didn't get into the right place mentally.
PK: And it really hurt?
PK: So you're walking down 18 and the galleries are closing in and they're all cheering for him.
RM: It's tough. Everyone was like "Wasn't that a great moment?" And I'm like, 'No, it was fucking shite!' It was terrible. I birdied the last to shoot four over! And I got the bigger picture that it was wonderful for golf, and I'm sure I'll look back and think 'That was pretty cool,' but it hurt. It really hurt. I was probably the only one at East Lake that day that was disappointed.
PK: And then you fly to Paris for the Ryder Cup?
PK: On the Saturday evening, I stood behind the clubhouse watching the teams coming in. You had just lost your match (a foursomes with Ian Poulter against Justin Thomas and Jordon Spieth) and you were sitting with Erica on the back of a buggy. She was cradling your head on her shoulder.
RM: (Laughs) Okay.
PK: And it kind of struck me as a 'moment', because Europe were 10-6 up but this didn't feel like winning. It seemed like a really tough time.
RM: (Exhales) Yeah, in a way.
PK: I'm making too much of it?
RM: No, it's a . . . I think you have these frustrating times in careers where you know it's there but you just can't get out of your own way. And it's a frustration that builds up, 'I know I'm better than this. How can I get there?'
PK: You've said you started writing a journal?
RM: Yeah, after the Tour Championship with Tiger.
PK: What was the first thing you wrote?
RM: It was basically . . . I sort of took a cue — and I don't know if I've ever said this — from Roger Federer. He is probably my favourite sportsperson ever.
RM: Roger has won 20 Grand Slams and done everything that you can do in his game. And he plays with such a freedom. He takes the ball early and shortens the points and for me that was (the question), 'How can I play with that freedom?' Because I've done everything that I've really wanted to do in the game and I know that I play my best golf by just going for it. So that was it: 'Play with that freedom.' And it was easy to write. But how do you actually do it?
NEXT WEEK: KISS OF THE SCORPION
He's a hero and a pal, but he's also a scorpion and you're a frog...
'Hey Tiger, why don't we cross the river together?'
'We'll throw our arms around each other.'
And he shoves a fucking dagger into you halfway across.
Rory McIlroy gave young fan his golf ball on the 15th hole.