News & Opinion

2020 U.S. Open: Rory McIlroy levels life’s uneven lies

Rory McIlroy and caddie Harry Diamond at 2020 PGA Championship
Rory McIlroy (right), with childhood friend and caddie Harry Diamond, describes fatherhood as ‘probably the best part of being a human being.’

Northern Irishman will enter next week’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot not having won a major title in 6 years, but he’s on a winning streak of sorts with a growing family and a self-awareness that belies his 31 years

Have you ever seen Rory McIlroy look as if he wanted to beat someone’s brains out? No, and it’s unlikely you ever will.

Does that mean McIlroy is too nice to win any more majors? It seems preposterous to suggest that of a player who won four major championships in a four-year span, but his current six-year drought suggests otherwise. He is one of the betting favorites for next week’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot, but no one in his right mind would make even a small wager on McIlroy.

The truth is that McIlroy’s four titles were won on sheer talent. He was – still is – one of the most physically gifted players of his generation. However, his last major victory was the 2014 PGA Championship, and the golf landscape has changed so much in the past six years that it’s hardly recognizable. Equally, McIlroy has evolved to the point that he’s not the same person he was when he hoisted his second Wanamaker Trophy.

A multiple major champion once said to me, “In order to win majors, you need a certain amount of a--hole about you.” And there’s not a curly hair on McIlroy’s head nor a bone in his body that would suggest that he’s that kind of competitor – or person.

McIlroy, now 31, leads all of professional golf in perspective. He has run up a bigger margin in that department now that his wife, Erica, has given birth to the couple’s first child, daughter Poppy Kennedy McIlroy, on Aug. 31.

“It’s probably the best part of being a human being, and I’m glad that I got to experience it,” the new father said last week at the Tour Championship.

Having children changes people, even before the birth. During the last few weeks since the PGA Tour restart in June, McIlroy has been wandering aimlessly from tournament to tournament, looking for some kind of inspiration that might generate some enthusiasm and produce something more than mediocre golf.

He conceded that he had trouble creating his own energy while playing with no spectators at Tour events.

"This is going to sound really bad, but I feel like the last few weeks, I've just been going through the motions," McIlroy said three weeks ago at the Northern Trust. "I want to get an intensity and some sort of fire, but I just haven't been able to. And look, that's partly to do with the atmosphere and partly to do with how I'm playing. I'm not inspiring myself, and I'm trying to get inspiration from outside sources, to get something going."

Now, we know that not having a gallery was only part of the reason that McIlroy didn't have his mind completely on his golf. He was hopelessly distracted by the impending birth of his daughter. It’s entirely understandable for normal folks, but you’d expect a professional athlete to be able to focus on his job while he’s inside the ropes.

McIlroy seems more interested in his further development as a person rather than his progress as a world-class professional golfer. It would be perfectly OK with him if one leads to the other, but he won’t – as do so many others, pros and amateurs alike – allow his golf to define him.

He reads books, and not just popular page-turner fiction that can be finished on a roundtrip plane ride. For instance, Og Mandino’s “The Greatest Salesman in the World” is a book that McIlroy continually refers to as a guidebook. Ryan Holiday’s “The Obstacle is the Way” and “Ego is the Enemy” are two others that have helped McIlroy chart his path through life.

All of which makes McIlroy much more complicated than your average touring professional. He’s not highly educated, but he’s highly intelligent. Unlike most Tour players, he isn’t afraid of going deep inside to find out who he really is.

A book that has made a particular mark on McIlroy is, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F---: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life,” by Mark Manson.

“[Manson] talks about how everyone wants to get smarter, more attractive, richer,” McIlroy told PGATour.com, “and they’re not going deep enough to ask, ‘Why do I want these things? What’s wrong with who I am right now?’ It’s people thinking that all these things will make them happier at the end of the day. With this book, it’s getting happiness from the simple things in life.”

As a result, our demands and expectations of McIlroy appear to be much different than those that he creates for himself. We can’t seem to understand why lately he can’t hit the right shot at the right time or why he misses too many 6-foot putts or why he can’t close the deal on Sundays.

And to McIlroy, that’s simply too one-dimensional. Golf isn’t his means to an end. It’s the path he wanders on his journey to enlightenment. If that leads to another major-championship title, all the better. If not, McIlroy will refer you to Mark Manson.

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