Features

Features

The Art of Being Rory

Rethinking his approaches to golf and life

BY EVIN PRIEST

The red Chicago bricks trigger warm memories for Rory McIlroy. At his South Florida home, the wine cellar is adorned with Midwestern slabs that, until recently, covered the driveway.

The bricks survived a renovation of the entrance to McIlroy’s Jupiter household when his wife, Erica Stoll, saw life left in their reddish-brown hue. “I’m a collector of wine, so we recycled the bricks and put them in the wine cellar,” McIlroy says. “Now, it looks like a really old-school, red-brick Chicago building.”

Chicago is something of a happy place for the Northern Irishman. It was where McIlroy first met and befriended Stoll during the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah. She was one of the PGA of America staff ers who helped organize that police escort for McIlroy from his hotel to the course for the singles match he nearly missed. They started dating some years later. Chicago was also where McIlroy—while on vacation with Erica and celebrating his 30th birthday last year—began a journey of self-discovery that would lead him back to the world No. 1 ranking.

The nostalgia is obvious and one of the cellar’s biggest lures. Another is the respite this bunker offers from the outside world. From the pressure of being golf’s heir apparent to Tiger Woods. The weekly reminders of the six years since his last major-championship victory. Questions of why he doesn’t win more often. A relief from the chaos of the novel coronavirus and golf’s return from the suspension it forced.

Then there’s the wine. “I have an app on my phone called CellarTracker,” McIlroy says. “You can label every bottle. I can go into the cellar for two or three hours at a time and just sort it all out. Organize everything. I get lost in my own little world.”

With a diminished and rescheduled majors season, there is one topic no cellar can shield McIlroy from. And it’s about to resurface again. “I think at this point, everyone knows I want to join that Grand Slam winners’ club,” McIlroy says.

 

▶ BITTERSWEET The Open Championship returned to Northern Ireland, but McIlroy missed the cut. Photograph by Matthew Lewis/R&A/Getty Images

 

THE COLLECTION

McIlroy has always been candid. His frank opinions—on issues from slow play to drug testing and even President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic—have helped cultivate immense popularity.

“The fact that he’s trying to politicize [the coronavirus] and make it a campaign rally . . . it’s not the way a leader should act,” McIlroy said on the McKellar golf podcast. The native of Holywood, Northern Ireland, was criticized for playing golf with Trump in 2017. “And I haven’t done it since . . . out of choice,” McIlroy said.

Yet something McIlroy previously hasn’t been open about is how deep he is into wine collecting. Maybe he has never been asked, which seems odd given the appetite for insights into his life. One could only imagine the wines he has collected in 13 years as a pro golfer in Europe and the United States.

“I’ve got a few,” McIlroy says of his favorite bottles in the cellar. “It’s hard now, with all these tariff s on French goods, but I love French wines. I love Bordeaux.

I love white Burgundy. I still have to get into red Burgundy; I’m not quite there yet. I’ve also been collecting a lot of Napa wine.”

McIlroy once joked that the only downside to the PGA Tour’s Fall series event in the Napa Valley was playing competitive golf with a red-wine hangover. Patriotically, this Australian writer asks if McIlroy has any bottles from Down Under. Australia consistently produces many of the best new-world wines.

“Grange, oh my God. Penfolds Grange is unbelievable,” McIlroy says. Penfolds is a South Australian wine-maker in the acclaimed Barossa Valley region, just outside Adelaide. Grange is Penfolds’ flagship wine and retails for $600 a bottle.

“We always drink Grange on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” McIlroy says. “That’s our Thanksgiving and Christmas wine. It has this kind of cinnamon hint that is so good with your typical Thanksgiving food. Scotty [Adam Scott] got me onto Grange during the 2014 Australian Open in Sydney.”

McIlroy was the defending Australian Open champion that year, 12 months after making a clutch birdie to defeat Scott on the 72nd hole at Royal Sydney. The win kick-started an inspirational run for McIlroy that featured major wins at the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and the PGA Championship at Valhalla, as well as the European Tour’s prestigious BMW PGA at Wentworth. Oh, and he won the WGC-Bridgestone in Ohio, too. It was a hot summer for McIlroy. But it was the last time he tasted major-championship success.

Fast-forward six years, and McIlroy appeared ready to go on another great run this year before COVID-19 suspended the PGA Tour for 90 days. The victims on golf’s schedule included a cancellation of the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s and a postponement of the PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park, the U.S. Open at Winged Foot and the Masters.

The Masters’ switch to November seemed particularly cruel for McIlroy, who was on a seven-tournament streak of top-five results, including a WGC win in China, before the lockdown began in March. But when tour play resumed, he was upbeat: “I’m not frustrated,” he said, “and I don’t feel I’ve been hard done by.”

 

▶ AT LAST McIlroy at Bay Hill in 2018, ending 18 months without a victory. Photograph by Keyur Khamar/PGA Tour/Getty Images

 

A SUBTLE ART

Another hobby McIlroy has leaned on heavily is reading. The collection of books in his stylish home library is just as impressive as the wine in his cellar. “I read a few books early on that I just really, really liked,” he says. “I read some of Dr. Bob Rotella’s books, but they were all very sports specific. Then I started to read some philosophy.”

McIlroy says Erica enjoys lifestyle books, but he wants to learn how the mind works. And how it can work better. “Ryan Holiday, I love reading his stuff,” he says of the author of The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy. “Angela Duckworth, she has a book called Grit. Then, there’s Cal Newport.”

McIlroy says Newport’s Digital Minimalism had a profound impact on his lifestyle. He is now cognizant of the negative effects digital screens can have on the human eye, particularly just before bed. He tries to avoid technology during tournament weeks.

“Og Mandino . . . I read his book, The Greatest Salesman in the World,” McIlroy says. “I just read another one called The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. I also enjoy Mark Manson, who wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-ck.”

Manson’s 2016 book became an international hit for its down-to-earth message: that the pursuit of happiness is a doomed experiment, and that learning to enjoy the struggle in anything is what will ultimately fill the perceived holes in one’s life. Along the way, one must realize there are only so many f—s that can be given, so . . . “give them the right way,” McIlroy says, completing the sentence. “And focus them on the right things. You can’t care about everything. I think, in 2017 and 2018, I was at a point where I was caring too much about things that were out of my control; things that people were saying. Things that people were doing.”

McIlroy, of course, is talking about his 18-month, worldwide winless drought that began after the play-off s of the 2015-’16 PGA Tour season. He had won the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston and, weeks later, the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup titles on Sept. 25, 2016, which was the day Arnold Palmer died. But McIlroy would not win again until March 2018. The event and the venue? The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

 

▶ WINNING! Rory and wife Erica celebrate Europe’s 2018 Ryder Cup win in France. Photograph by Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images

 

MAKING CHANGES

There are plenty of things pro golfers can do to fill their time. Why not take up astrophotography, like Jimmy Walker? Or perhaps aviation, like Charl Schwartzel, an avid pilot?

“Well, it’s a way to approach life, rather than golf,” McIlroy says. “For me, if I approach life the right way, then this [gestures around the golf course] falls into place.

“By reading these books, there’s a part that helps Rory the golfer, and there’s also a part that helps Rory the person. It helps with trying to diff erentiate those two people. If Rory the person is happy off the golf course, then Rory the golfer is going to play better on it. . . . Oh, gosh, now I’m speaking about myself in the third person,” McIlroy says, laughing.

As he dived into reading, McIlroy realized his relationships with those close to him needed to change. He says reading helped “as it relates to golf, but also as it relates to everything. As it relates to having a bit more patience with my parents. To being a good husband. Being a good listener. Being a good friend. Reaching out to people. Not shutting myself off. I did turn into a very bad communicator, and I’d almost expect people to know how I was feeling, or what I was thinking. Maybe I felt that everything revolved around me and everyone should know what I need.”

The turning point came last year after McIlroy failed to convert a one-shot lead over Brooks Koepka going into the final round of the WGC event in Memphis.

Victory would have been cathartic after an emotional missed cut at the Open Championship in McIl-roy’s homeland of Northern Ireland the week earlier. But Koepka cares little for the romantic story. He shot 65 to McIlroy’s 71 to win. It was the first time McIlroy and Koepka played together in the final round of a PGA Tour event, so it was somewhat personal. McIlroy tied for fourth. He was shattered.

“I flew to Chicago, and I was waiting for Erica to get in, because she was giving me a belated birthday trip,” McIlroy says. “It was a tough day. It was a tough week, really, after the Open at Portrush. About two hours after we’d finished [in Memphis], I was waiting at the airport . . . and I didn’t get one text.

“I just felt sort of lonely. I said to my parents and my friends, ‘You know, it’s OK to text me.’ And they were like, ‘Well, we don’t know what to say.’ And I never want people close to me to feel that way. Say whatever. Say something.

“So, I think I realized that’s when I need to be a better communicator. I needed to give people the feeling of not feeling afraid to reach out. Portrush and Memphis, those back-to-back weeks, I looked at myself a little bit. It dawned on me that the people who are close to you are the people who you should give the most f—s about. [Laughs.] I needed to engage a little bit more and not see the world as revolving around me.”

Since last summer, there is far more open dialogue within team McIlroy. His childhood best friend, Harry Diamond, took over caddieing for McIlroy in the summer of 2017. McIlroy parted with his longtime looper, J.P. Fitzgerald, after the 2017 Open at Birkdale. Diamond, a handy golfer, has been on the bag ever since. “They’re your friends, but they also work for you,” McIlroy says. “It’s a bit of a strange relationship at times. My friends, my team and my family now realize I want their feedback. If it’s constructive criticism, or if it’s something else, I’d rather it be from them than anyone else.”

Most of McIlroy’s self-discovery happened off the course. But some of it involved his game.

“I figured out what works for me and not trying to be someone I’m not,” he says. “Not falling into this sort of myth on tour that the harder you work, the better you get. It’s more about working smart. For me, that’s focusing less on technique, having less swing thoughts and focusing more on the mental and course management side. That’s how I’ve gotten back to this point.”

It also helped that McIlroy took up a permanent residence in the United States in 2018. “I love it. I have so much stability. I can play these events and get home on a Sunday night, and I can spend a couple of nights in my own bed. I had craved that for so long,” he says. “I tried the idea [of living outside the United States] for seven or eight years, but I just craved the home. I craved somewhere to go. I didn’t have it, and now that we do, it means so much to me.

“At home, I just like doing really mundane things. I just like being normal. If Erica needs me to run to the grocery store, I like going to the grocery store. I just like helping her out.”


“I WAS AT A POINT WHERE I WAS CARING TOO MUCH ABOUT THINGS THAT WERE OUT OF MY CONTROL.”

▶ TURNING POINT Being overtaken by Brooks Koepka last year in Memphis led to a change in McIlroy’s approach. Photograph by Stan Badz/Getty Images

 

RETURN OF THE MAC

Since his lackluster 2017 season, McIlroy has restored his status as the most consistent of the elite players on the PGA Tour. He has 18 wins and 87 top-10s from 180 starts, including seven runner-up results and as many third-place finishes.

“I’ve had a few wins and I’ve had a lot of chances to win,” he says. “I’ve played in a lot of final groups. I’ve played a lot of consistent golf. So, yeah, I feel like I’m back where I should be.”

But McIlroy knows golf careers are ultimately defined by majors. He entered the season with four, which is an inconceivable achievement for many players. But he was also at risk of being remembered as having won only four.

So we’ll be waiting to see whether McIlroy, winless in his 20 most recent majors, can end that streak in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Next, can he don Augusta National’s green jacket to complete the career Grand Slam? He has a U.S. Open trophy (2011), two PGA Championship titles (2012, 2014) and a claret jug (2014). But a fourth place is his best result at Augusta, in 2015. Only Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods have won all four majors in their careers.

It’s a feat the golf world wants to see McIlroy achieve. Certainly, a moment it could use. “I think if I were able to do that, it would obviously be very special,” he says, “but it would almost be a nice reset where I could say, ‘Hey, let’s try and do this all over again.’ That’s the cool thing.”