At just 24 years old, Rory McIlroy has already tasted the most extreme highs and lows of professional golf. Now, as he regains the form that made him the most exciting player in the world, Rory reveals where it all went wrong last year, how he’s turned things around – and why he’s stronger than ever...
Golf was a poorer place in 2013 without Rory McIlroy’s free-flowing brilliance, so we couldn’t be happier to see him now bouncing down the fairway after trademark 300-yard arrow-straight drives. He’s also dispatching laser-guided irons to their target, holing putts and, perhaps more than anything, smiling again.
“I haven’t hit the ball as well for a long time,” he told us. “It’s been a good start to the season. I have two events under my belt and had a chance to win both of them.
“I was a little disappointed with how I putted at the weekend in Dubai, but have spent two days with (putting coach) Dave Stockton; it was nice to catch up with him and have him take a look at it.
“He doesn’t have to tell me much, just a slight grip change. It’s much more settled, I can just go about my business and play my golf. Everything is in a good place; the game is in good shape.”
It’s hard to believe Rory has been on Tour now for seven years. He’s experienced the highs of winning two Majors and being world No.1, and the lows of having every swing – along with his personal life – intensely scrutinised.
Here, in his own words, is what he’s learned since he turned pro in 2007...
Keep your perspective. I’ve experienced a lot more in golf than I ever thought I would when I was starting out in 2007. I think everyone knows me by now; there are times when I make it look easy and there are times where I struggle. I was struggling in 2012, and then all of a sudden things clicked. I won my second Major, won two of the FedEx Cup play-offs, won Dubai, and suddenly everyone was saying: “What was the big deal?”
You go through periods where the game doesn’t feel quite as good, but you’ve just got to keep your perspective. People don’t have to worry about me! 2013 was a tough year, but I’m getting back to where I belong. Winning in Australia proves it.
Confidence is everything. I just wasn’t swinging it the best in 2013. I got into a couple of bad habits, and it’s taken me a bit longer to get out of them. Obviously when you’re fighting that much, it’s hard to play the golf that I want to play, which is fluid and free flowing. That’s the way I play my best. Trying to work on my swing so much has not allowed me to do that, and every time you play and you don’t play well, it chips away at your confidence a little bit. Now it’s just about building that back up.
It’s all in the timing. The speed of my body through the ball has always been one of my biggest advantages, and maybe one of my disadvantages, because when you have so much speed through the ball, you need to time it perfectly for it to work well all the time. When I’m on and I can sync my upper body and lower body, everything’s great. When those two just get a little bit out of sync is when I start to struggle.
You’ve got to stay patient. It’s frustrating when you’re not able to emulate successful seasons. There’s a point in time where you’re thinking: ‘Right, come on, let’s get this back on track.’ But the best way to approach it is to stay patient and not force the issue too much. The way I look at it, if I have a 25-year career, nine mediocre months isn’t actually that long. If you look at your career as an 18-hole golf course, it’s really half a hole that you’re struggling on. But I’m glad to be drawing a line under last season.
Make the most of any momentum. I feel like I’m much better prepared this season than I was last year. My swing is in a much better place. I’m in a really good frame of mind and I feel like I built a lot of momentum at the back end of last year. I’m going to try to continue that into this season.
Find your bubble. It’s frustrating when people try to make things up. They say “this is why he’s not playing well”, when they actually don’t have a clue. That’s very annoying to deal with. I cannot talk about the court case [with former management company Horizon], for obvious legal reasons, but I wasn’t happy. It will get sorted. Generally, I think people are going to be nice and hype you up when you’re playing well, but when you’re not playing well, they’re going to look for reasons. That’s the nature of it. I’m not going to let it get to me. I guess I’m a victim of my own success at times, so I’ve learnt to not listen as much, not read as much, or not look as much. You just have to wrap yourself in your own little bubble.
Reset your goals. I am feeling very positive that 2014 can be my best year yet. I won a Major in 2011 and 2012, but not in 2013, so to make up for that with two this year would be nice. I’d love a run at the Green Jacket, having come so close a few years ago.
Get motivated. I love proving people wrong. I loved the Sunday night when I’d won the US PGA and Race to Dubai and proved a lot of people wrong. And again in Australia, when I won. It was nice to be able to do that. But I don’t need any extra motivation to play well. I want to be the best golfer in the world, and I don’t need any extra motivation than that.
Don’t beat yourself up. I’m very hard on myself. I feel like I’m emotionally connected to my game. If I play badly, I’ll be in a bad mood. If I play well, I’ll be in a good mood. Sometimes I feel like I need to differentiate that. The way I play golf shouldn’t determine who I am as a person. That was the case sometimes last year. I’ve been really hard on myself if I haven’t played well. So that’s something I feel like I’ve got better at and something I need to continue to get better at.
Don’t believe the hype. In terms of the public, I feel they think your good is better than it is, and your bad is worse than it is. When you do well, you get hyped up so much, and when you do badly, they think it’s the worst thing ever. There is no real balance in it. There is no point in getting carried away with the hype, and no point in getting carried away with the criticism, either. It’s nice that people say ‘he could be this’ or ‘he could be that’ or ‘he could win 20 Majors’, but at the end of the day I’ve won two. I obviously want to add to that tally. But you can’t let what other people think of you influence what you have to do. You’ve got to work hard and believe in yourself.
If you find a fix, build on it. The biggest frustration of 2013 was probably at The Open. I’d never missed the cut at The Open. Anything I was trying to do to the ball I couldn’t do. I was doing all sorts of stupid stuff. But I took four weeks off and did some great work with my coach, Michael Bannon, and it started to click. Then I just kept it going from there. That’s the reason I played well at the end of the season. Once you feel like something’s there, you start to see some decent results and your confidence starts to build.
Keep your focus. I think it was a big deal moving to Nike. It was a big decision for me. It was a big step in my career. But I guess I had so many things to think about, there was a lot of instability. That didn’t let me focus 100 per cent on what I needed to do, which was to try to play the best that I could. This year is polar opposite. Everything seems to have fallen into place nicely, and I can just go out there and focus on my golf and try to play as well as I can.
Resist the urge to tinker. I’ve never really been a tinkerer. I don’t really like to change my equipment that much. Once I’ve set on something, I like to keep it.
Don’t panic. Last year taught me not to panic. You’ve got to remind yourself of what got you here in the first place. You might start looking to try this, or talk to this guy, or that guy – that’s not the way to approach it at all. You just need to work your way out of it, and sometimes it takes longer than others.
Be inspired. I think the first time that I realised I could win a Major was when Graeme [McDowell] won the US Open at Pebble Beach. To see a great friend win a Major really inspires you.
Keep things familiar. I’ve been working with the same coach for 18 years. So we know where we want my golf swing to be, and we know the positions it needs to be in for me to hit good shots. It’s been a long process. A lot of the early days were about fundamentals: getting a good grip; good set-up; good alignment; the base of the swing. At an early age I used to be very upright, my left arm used to be very, very high at the top. Then I remember at about 13 or 14, I was getting very flat, so I tried to find a happy medium. We’ve got to the point now where I don’t feel like my swing has changed that much since I was about 16.
Don’t neglect the basics. I’ve made a slight change in grip this year. My right hand has been getting a little too “underneath”. That caused my left hand to stop after impact. So I’ve been trying to get my right thumb on top of the grip a little bit more. That helped my left hand keep on all the way through.
Kids: Hit the ball hard. It’s very important that kids who are just taking up the game try to hit it as far as they can, rather than get caught up in too much technique. Obviously, at some stage you need to get some sort of basic technique, but they should begin by hitting it as far and as hard as they can, and then rein it back in from there.
Learn to love pressure. There are no tricks when it comes to dealing with nerves. The more you get yourself in a position of feeling those nerves, the more you get used to them. Then, all of a sudden, you start to welcome it. That rush and adrenalin is actually a good feeling. We don’t hit thousands of balls every week to finish 20th and never feel that rush. The whole point of hitting so many balls is to get into final groups on Sundays, and win the biggest tournaments. You get nervous because you work so hard for it, and it means so much to you. It shouldn’t be a bad thing. If it didn’t mean anything to you, that’s when you should worry.
Play like you practise. If a guy has a 12-foot putt to win a million dollars, he should forget about the million dollars. He should try and hit the putt as though he was just on the practice green. If I’m under pressure, I just try and imagine I’m playing with my friends, back at home. All I’m thinking about is trying to hit the same shot I would with them.
Get healthy. Health and fitness has become an important part of my preparation in the last couple of years. If you want to be a top-class athlete nowadays you need to train hard, eat the right things, have rest, and look after yourself. Golf may not be one of the most physically demanding sports in the world, but if you want to be the best, you have to train.
Fitness equals power. The amazing thing about the body is that it adapts so quickly. I used to not really like going into the gym when I was playing tournaments, because I would be sore and stiff. But, the more you keep doing it, the less soreness you have, and you actually start to enjoy it. I’ve worked a lot on my legs and lower body. I did a lot of split squats, lunges, single leg squats and so on, to try to balance up my right and left sides. I now have a lot more stability in my lower body, and I’ve developed a lot of strength. People don’t believe how long I spend doing weights. They say: “But you only play golf.” In the modern game, you need to be an athlete.
Learn from your mistakes. I learnt more from my Sunday collapse at the Masters than I did from either of my Major wins. The wins just reaffirm that what you’re doing is right. Everybody is going to make mistakes at some stage, so the trick is learning from them, put them behind you and move on. There’s no point in dwelling on it because it’s in the past and you can’t do anything about it. You can definitely do something about the future. I’ve put some things into practice which I’ve learnt from the past, but you’ve got to keep moving forward.
Know your limitations. The best advice I could give anyone is “know your limitations”. So often, in Pro-Ams, you give a guy a yardage of 170 yards and he takes a 7-iron out! Then I have to politely say “I don’t think you can quite get there with a 7-iron”. You might be able to hit a 7-iron 170 yards twice out of 10 attempts. Don’t try to be a hero; just take an extra club. The bottom line is you are going to get it closer 80 per cent of the time if you take an extra club and swing within yourself.
Play with the best. Just for people to be mentioning my name with the likes of Tiger Woods is a huge compliment. I feel like every time I’ve played with Tiger, he’s brought the best out of me. It helps me focus and I really enjoy his company. Players don’t build up rivalries themselves. People from the outside build up rivalries. I just want to play golf.
Get your priorities right. I’ve never played golf for the money. I couldn’t tell you how much money I’ve made. I’m not really one to look at pay cheques. People might take that the wrong way, but I just play to win.
Get a putting mirror. The trick with putting is that if your posture and body position are not right then nothing else will be. It takes practice and might feel unnatural at first, but once your posture and stance are right, everything else will follow. Get yourself a putting alignment mirror. It is probably the single most important prop you can buy to help your putting and it’s not very expensive. The great thing about it is that you don’t have to wait until you’re on the green to use it. You can use it at home, or in your hotel room if you are away on business.
And finally... enjoy it! My putting coach, Dave Stockton, once said to me: “Just go out and play with a smile on your face. Enjoy it. This is what you’ve always wanted to do since you were a little boy. There’s no point in getting frustrated out there or getting upset. Just go out and enjoy it.” I love playing the game. I still get the excitement and emotions of a weekend golfer!
Rory's views on...
His 2013 Race to Dubai finish
I expect myself to be a lot higher in the rankings than 35th. I won The Race to Dubai in 2012, was second in 2011 and second in ’09. To be down where I was obviously doesn’t feel too good and is a reflection of my year. It’s not an embarrassment; it’s just the reality and the reality is I hadn’t played well enough.
Those off-course distractions
I’m not going to sit here and lie and say it didn’t affect me. Of course it did. You’re thinking of other things when you really shouldn’t have to. But it’s the last year I’m ever going to have to go through something like that, and I’ve learned from it. It’s great that I’ve gone through it at this stage in my career and not 15 years down the line.
Being a role model
It’s a nice position to be in. I realise that every time my face is on TV or I’m playing in a tournament, I am a role model for a lot of people and a lot of kids do look up to me. I try to do my best in that regard and put myself across as honestly and as modestly as possible.
The Tiger comparisons
I won my second Major at the same age. But he went on that incredible run like 2000, 2001, 2002, and won so many. I’d love to tell you I’m going to do the same, but I just don’t know.
What you can learn from Rory
Stay tension-free - David Leadbetter, one of the world’s top teachers
What Rory does: He has the best free-flowing swing in golf and I think that is the area people should look at if they want to learn from him.
What you can do: Eliminate forearm and shoulder tension at address. If you can keep it soft there, you give the chance for the swing to store power naturally. You might want to avoid grounding the club as you set up in the way that Faldo, Norman and Nicklaus used to do. That helps to keep you loose.
Copy his posture - Michael Bannon, Rory’s coach since childhood
What Rory does: He has such good clean lines. From the top of the head to the hips, then into the knees and down. That’s three distinct lines which is a great structure from which to start.
What you can do: Let your hands hang nicely down in a vertical line from your shoulder joints. I do admire that when I stand behind Rory. I’m always checking his address position. He’s pretty consistent and right now his posture is fantastic.
Add short game variety - Denis Pugh, European Tour coach
What Rory does: People always get drawn to the flair and rhythm he has in his swing, but they forget his imagination around the green. You’ll see him keep the wrists firm and bump low, checking shots, and then bring his hands into play with soft flops. I marvel at his array of skills and realise that there is no standardised shot when you chip.
What you can do: Watch him and then spend a morning experimenting.
Enjoy yourself - Ewen Murray, Sky Sports commentator
What Rory does: I think Rory still sees golf as a hobby. He plays it now the same way he did as a kid. He’ll never be like Woods, who’ll take irons off tees to try and get it done scientifically. He’ll always play the way he plays, with a certain abandon.
What you can do: Rory enjoys it, and when you’re doing that, you have more chance of doing it well. We can all learn by taking it a little less seriously and forgiving our mistakes.