Rory McIlroy on his new life, the madness of Rory Mania, and why he skipped last year’s Players
On a balmy February evening in South Florida, 22-year-old Rory McIlroy is surrounded by the spoils of his success: a seven-bedroom manse, a muscular Bentley out front, a pool and palm trees out back. This is his rental property for the next three months, a Jupiter compound that sits hard against the Loxahatchee River.
After a long day of beating balls and pumping iron, McIlroy, in flip-flops and jeans, wanders to the end of the yard, beyond a stately fountain and a sculpture of a scantily clad woman. “Rickie’s five doors down,” he says before gazing across the white-capped channel, “and Keegan’s right across the way.” That would be Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley, two other young princes who have taken the PGA Tour (and Jupiter, apparently) by storm.
McIlroy, though, is the undisputed kingpin of the group, a role for which he has always seemed destined but never fully grasped until his runaway victory at the U.S. Open last summer. McIlroy says the attention heaped upon him after that week was overkill, and it hasn’t relented much in the 10 months since. Even his own peers are enamored with him, including Hunter Mahan, who beat McIlroy in the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play earlier this year only to use the occasion to anoint McIlroy as “the best player in the world right now, for sure.” A week later, at the Honda Classic, McIlroy made it official, claiming the World No. 1 ranking with a two-shot victory at PGA National. It’s a nice path McIlroy’s following, especially because this time last year he wasn’t convinced he was on the right path at all.
In the last year, you won your first major, switched managers, and began dating tennis star Caroline Wozniacki. How much has all that attention and off-course activity prevented you from playing to your potential?
I think it's been the complete opposite. It's given me a lot more peace of mind, a lot more contentment, and that's enabled me to play some great golf along the way. If you look at my results since after the  PGA, I've finished outside the top 10 once and I've got three wins. So I think you can see from my results that [the changes] have actually helped my game. They've been a positive.
At the Match Play in February, you said that regardless of what the rankings say, Tiger Woods is still the best player in the world. Do you still believe that?
I do. You can't judge someone just by how they've played over the last few weeks, the last few months. You have to look at the overall picture. Tiger's won 14 majors and 72 PGA Tour events. People have very short memories. They forget that just a couple of years he ago, he won a U.S. Open on one leg; in 2007-08, his win percentage was over 50 percent. When he's on, he's by far the best player in the world.
If there's a knock against you, it's that you lack the ability to close out tournaments, which for years was Tiger's trademark. Fair criticism?
In a way it's fair, because I feel like I've gotten myself in position to win a lot more golf tournaments than I have. The thing is, as long as I keep putting myself in the position to win, hopefully all of a sudden I'll be able to knock off four, five, six tournaments a year, which is what I want to do. But ultimately, if you gave me another season like I had last year with two wins and a major, I'd take it. For me, it's all about majors and trying to rack up as many of those as possible.
Your win over Lee Westwood in the semifinals of the Match Play clearly meant a lot to you. Why did you want to beat him so badly?
First of all, he's one of the best players in the world. And of course we were competing for the No. 1 spot in the world, so I needed to beat him to get into the final and at least have a chance [at becoming No. 1]. Obviously [the media] has made a big thing out of me and Lee, but to be honest our relationship has always been very competitive because of what we do. I get on fine with Lee, Lee gets on fine with me. There's no real animosity there.
Westwood has made some snarky remarks about you, both in the press and on Twitter. Is that just the spirit of your relationship?
A little bit, yeah. I've tried to stay clear of that over the past few months, simply because it's something I don't want to get involved in too much. But that's sort of the deal with all us guys -- we give each other a bit of grief now and then. It's all good-spirited, and I think most of us take it the right way.
Why did you “unfollow” Westwood on Twitter?
The only reason I unfollowed him is that he tweets so much. He fills up your timeline -- a bit like [Ian] Poulter. There are a few people like that -- when you see 20 new tweets on your timeline, half of them are from that person.
You surprised a lot of people when you left Chubby Chandler's management group, ISM, in October, for Horizon Sports, a small firm whose only big-name client to that point was your pal Graeme McDowell. Why did you leave?
I felt like the path I was going down wasn't the path I wanted to go down.
In what sense?
In the sense of my life outside of golf. I just wanted a few fresh ideas, and to see things from a different perspective, a different angle. And obviously being so close to Graeme, I had spent a lot of time with all the guys at Horizon. I saw firsthand what a great job they did for him. To be honest, it was something I'd thought about for quite a while. I'd made my mind up a few weeks before the [news broke]. Chubby and ISM were great for me starting out in 2007. I think what they have there is very good for young players because they have guys who have played on Tour before, they understand what you need. But I felt like I had reached the point where I needed something else.
Chandler told me last summer that McDowell enjoyed being a big fish in a small pond at Horizon. Was he cool with you coming aboard?
It's funny. When I joined ISM in 2007, Graeme left ISM at the end of that year. I thought it was because of me in some way, that I had come along and sort of taken a bit of time or attention away from him. I had conversations with him about that, and he said, “No, not at all.” And then that was something I talked to Graeme about before I joined Horizon. I said, “I don't want to come in here and take away anything from you.” And he said, “You joining Horizon would be great. We could do things together.” So, no, it's been great.
What have you learned from McDowell?
What I've learned from Graeme is his work ethic. I think he structures everything so well. He's got a very analytical mind, whereas I can be very impulsive in some ways. He really weighs his options and takes his time with things. Even with the way he structures his practice and goes through his drills, he's very methodical, and that's something that's rubbed off on me.
How are you impulsive? Do you walk into a car dealership and buy the first thing you see?
Yeah, something like that. [Laughs] I just make split decisions instead of weighing up the options and thinking about it, or taking a step back and saying, “OK, if I choose to do this, what are the consequences?” For me, it was always, I'll do this, and whatever happens, happens. I think getting some experience and getting older has helped as well, as has spending time with Graeme.
Are you impulsive on the course?
Definitely. I need to rein that in a little bit. You've got to make the right decisions at the key times.
You were thinking about moving to the States last year, but you've decided against it. Why the change of heart?
It was always something that I had thought about, but I never really found the right place. To be honest, I didn't have the time to look at places. I always knew I wanted something in Florida, but I didn't know if I wanted to be in Orlando or [the West Palm Beach area]. In the end, I made a decision not to move here permanently. I'll still have a second base here.
So Tim Finchem need not be concerned?
No, of course not. [Laughs] I'll be a PGA Tour player for a lot of years to come.
That wasn't all that clear a year ago when you and Westwood declined to play the PGA Tour's flagship event, the Players Championship.
Yeah, that's another example of being involved with Chubby and ISM and maybe being led down the wrong path, or a path that I didn't want to go down. It was something I sort of felt like I had to do.
Because Chubby said so?
Well, because of -- yeah, a little bit. I think just spending a little bit of time around Chubby and Lee and hearing their view of the PGA Tour -- obviously they're very pro-European Tour, while I've always been one who wanted to play over here and wants to play on the PGA Tour. Maybe that was one of the decisions I look back on and regret a little bit.
Take us back to the final round of the 2011 Masters. What was your mental state on the 10th tee, just before your round imploded?
I still had a one-shot lead and that's what I was trying to tell myself: You're still leading, if only by one shot. The thing that I was always trying to do that Sunday was just stay ahead, instead of setting myself a number -- like, OK, go out and shoot 68 and see what happens. All I was trying to do was just keep my nose in front. It was probably a bad mental strategy that I had throughout the day. That's something I learned.
Did you sense that the wheels were about to pop off?
No, not at all.
So what happened next -- the snap hook into the cabins that triggered a string of poor holes -- surprised you as much as it did everyone watching at home?
Yeah, definitely. I shot one-over on the front nine; it's not like I played that badly. I felt like if I just went out and played solid on the back nine that I still had a chance. Obviously that tee shot at 10 is where things started to go wrong.
The lasting image is of you on the 13th tee with your head buried in your arm. What was going through your mind at that moment?
Well, I had a terrible run: I tripled 10, bogeyed 11, doubled 12. I actually hit two great shots into 11 -- hit a 9-iron right over the pin to 12 feet and three-putted that. And I hit another good shot into 12 and then four-putted that for a double. But I was still standing on the 13th tee thinking if I could birdie my way in, I'd still have a chance. But when I hit it left into the creek, that was my last chance gone. That's when I knew.
Many amateurs turn to jelly when they get nervous or flustered. How did you feel physically when you were going through that?
It felt like -- especially on the 10th after my fourth shot hit the tree -- everything just seemed to go so quickly. I hit that shot and then all of a sudden it felt like I was on the 11th tee. Everything was a bit of a blur for a few holes.
Describe the phone conversation you had with your parents the next morning.
It was just before I was going to go to the airport. I spoke to my dad and that was fine. I didn't have any tears then, and then I got on the phone with my mum, and that's when I broke down. She said, “Look, we're still so proud of you. You'll have plenty more chances. Don't let one bad day ruin all the hard work you've put in over the years.” That was when it all sort of hit me. I just felt like I'd let everyone down in some way.
Are you a crier by nature?
A little bit, yeah. I'll cry at the movies and things like that.
Do you remember the last time you felt emotion as intense as what you experienced at Augusta?
[Long pause] No, never like that. I'd never cried because of golf before. And I've never cried after a win. I've maybe gotten a little choked up, but I've never burst into tears.
Not even when you hugged your father, Gerry, after winning the U.S. Open two months later? You didn't get a little misty-eyed?
No, that was a different feeling. Just relief -- I don't know what that was.
Greg Norman called you after the Masters. What's the best piece of advice he gave you?
He told me something I put into practice at the U.S. Open, actually -- he told me not to watch any TV during the weeks of tournaments, to not read any newspapers or magazines. He basically told me to wrap myself in my own little bubble. And he said if there's ever anything I need or wanted help with, that he's always just a phone call away.
Do you care what people write about you?
It's hard to avoid at times, but I try not to read too much of it. Especially after the U.S. Open, I tried not to read too much because there was so much hype, and people were saying, “You're going to be the next this and that.” You don't want to read too much of the positive stuff, either.
The hysteria after your U.S. Open win was Tiger-like. Did it feel over-the-top to you?
Yeah, to be honest it all felt like it was a bit too much, especially when I got home. I couldn't go anywhere. It was pretty tough for the first couple of weeks. But as I said, people have short memories, and if you don't play well for the first few weeks after a win, they'll start wondering why you're not playing well. It just comes with what we do.
On the Saturday night before you won at Congressional, you were out past midnight eating steaks with Chubby and the boys.
Yeah, we went to Ruth's Chris.
Did you intentionally try to stay looser that night versus Saturday night at the Masters?
To be honest, the night before the last round at Augusta was very relaxed as well. The difference was in the mornings. At Augusta, I woke up on Sunday and was a little bit tense from the start. All I was thinking about was the round. On the Sunday morning of the U.S. Open, I just went down and had breakfast with my dad at the hotel, then went back up to the room and watched a movie. I just sort of tried to wrap myself in my own little bubble -- like Greg said -- while at the same time stay very relaxed. I made sure not to turn on the TV and watch ESPN or the Golf Channel. I stayed off Twitter. I stayed off everything. And it seemed to work. I was a lot more relaxed going into that final round at Congressional. I knew what I needed to do differently from the Masters.
Which was what exactly?
Looking at the way I play golf normally when I'm in contention, I chat with J.P. [Fitzgerald, his caddie], my head is up, I'm looking around, I'm my normal self. On that final day at Augusta I was very insular, sort of looking down all the time, looking at my shoes, tucking my shirt in, instead of having good body language. That's something that was very important to me that last day at Congressional.
The “McIlroy strut” was in full effect.
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]
Are you aware that you're strutting when you're doing it?
People mention it to me all the time, and to be honest, I try not to do it as much. The thing is, I'm just so -- I'm having fun out there and I'm enjoying myself. But, yeah, I do have a little bit of a bounce in my step, and that's something I definitely had on the Sunday at Congressional.
If your Twitter feed is any indication, things seem to be going great with you and Caroline Wozniacki. Do you guys spend time comparing notes about your professional lives?
Not really. Not now. It's been eight months now [that we've been dating]. At the start, though, yes. We'd talk about how we feel going into a final or a final day, what's it like. But now it's just nice to have someone there to -- like after Sunday at the Match Play, where I'm a little bit disappointed, it's nice to have someone who understands. She's lost finals, she knows what it's like. You sort of know what to say. But, you know, we've got so much in common and that's why we get on so well. It's going great. I'm probably the happiest I've ever been off the golf course.
Do you think about marriage and having kids and how that might affect your career?
Yeah, of course I do. I think it's something that goes through everyone's mind every now and again. But you look at someone like Luke Donald, who's married, and he said that having Elle, his first child, was one of the reasons he played so well last year. It can work both ways for guys. The most important thing is that you're happy. If you're happy off the golf course, it should enable you to play better on it.
This article first appeared in the May 2012 issue of Golf Magazine. The May issue is on newsstands and the tablet version is available for free for magazine subscribers on iPad, Kindle Fire, Nook Tablet, Nook Color and Samsung Galaxy Tab. Learn more