Rory McIlroy and I first met in January 2009. He was 19, making his first trip to the United States as a pro and over a brown-bag lunch he discussed the slums of Mumbai and golf in China and traveling the U.S. alone as a junior golfer. A worldly kid. I recall reading his blog-posts and emails around that time, revealing him to be a smart and mentally engaged young man.
Now he’s 27 and is engaged to Erica Stoll, whom he met when she was working for the PGA of America. He is ranked No. 2 in the world, though he’s sidelined at the moment with stress fractures in his ribs. McIlroy, the winner of four major championships, is expected to return to play next month. After traveling to the States from Northern Ireland on Feb. 3, Rory and I conducted the interview below, all by email. We did it over five days, covering two topics per day. We have left his elegant British spellings—favourite!—in place. Also, he consistently wrote the pronoun I with a lowercase I, like a modern-day e.e. cummings in his poem “i carry your heart with me.” We raised Rory’s i’s.
I believe his thoughtful responses show his honesty and intelligence in a way you may not have seen before.
Sunday, Feb. 5
From Michael Bamberger, 12:34 p.m.
How are you feeling? Are you watching any golf on TV? Do you find yourself thinking about your swing? Are you going through golf withdrawal?
From Rory McIlroy, 4:22 p.m.
I’m feeling much better than I was three weeks ago. Gladly, I’m progressing well and will be able to hit wedge shots starting next week. It’s all about building it back up slowly and reintroducing the load and volume of practice gradually.
I find myself watching a lot of golf on TV over these past few weeks. We arrived back to Florida on Friday. Because of the jet lag I’ve been up early so I could watch my good buddy Sergio [Garcia] get the win in Dubai! Watching the golf isn’t necessarily because I miss it, more because I’m a fan of golf and I’m genuinely interested in how the guys are playing.
I am thinking about my swing because even before the injury, I was trying to make a few subtle changes. So I’m watching footage of my swing from the last few years and trying to create feelings of what I need to do to get some of the positions back I was getting into in 2014-2015. I also really liked how I was swinging it all of 2011, but my body is a little different now so I don’t think it’s a great idea to try and replicate that swing.
Today is an American holy day—Super Bowl Sunday. Which form of football do you like best and why? Football football, as played in Ireland, Europe and throughout the world? American football? Irish Gaelic football? Is it hard for you to use the word “soccer”? What American football player has made the biggest impression on you? Care to make a prediction for SB 51, Patriots-Falcons?
It’s the first ever time I’ve been in the U.S for Super Bowl Sunday, as I’m usually still in the Middle East. I really want to get to one in the near future. I must say the actual football game seems like an afterthought with everything else that goes on around it. I’m definitely a bigger fan of “football football” than “American football.” I enjoy following the NFL but I grew up with soccer (very hard for me to use), so that will always be my preferred choice.
I’ve been fortunate to spend time with Peyton and Eli Manning and also Tom Brady. They are all big golf fans, and I was impressed that even in their offseason they were taking care of themselves and very dedicated. I wouldn’t be putting money on this prediction because I don’t know enough, but I think the Patriots will win because of their experience in Super Bowls in the past. From my own experience, if you’ve been there and done it, it makes the next time a little easier!
Monday, Feb. 6
From Michael, 7:34 a.m.
Well, that was a spectacular football game last night, and you called it: In the end, the Patriots’ vast experience allowed them to bear down and do, in the fourth quarter through overtime, what they knew they could do. Brady’s focus and relentlessness brought to mind Big Jack in his prime and Tiger in his. There are inherent differences in a team sport and individual sports, but I’m wondering: What did you see? What will stay with you? Can you describe what it’s like, mentally, to be in position to close and do it, as the Pats did? What’s it like to be on the other side, where the Falcons are this morning?
From Rory, 7:09 a.m. (Tuesday, Feb. 7)
That Patriots comeback was the most incredible comeback I think I’ve ever witnessed in sports. The massive intangible of momentum was with the Patriots, and the Falcons could do nothing to stop it.
The thing that will stay with me from watching that game unfold was the total belief the Patriots had and that all came from their two big leaders in [Bill] Belichick and Brady. People call it getting “in the zone” and I’m fortunate to say I’ve experienced it a few times on the golf course. It’s more a massive sense of self-belief and conviction that no matter what you do, things are going to work out in your favour. The power of the mind I guess!
When you’re on the other side of that, like the Falcons were, it’s only right to give yourself time to be upset and dejected. But in time you can see the positives and pick apart the negatives so you can make certain those mistakes won’t happen again. They didn’t get to the Super Bowl for nothing.
And what did you think of Lady Gaga? You may not have heard, but you have been named the halftime producer for next year’s Super Bowl. Who will you book?
I thought Gaga did a really good job. Sometimes you forget how many great songs these artists have produced over the years! I also think she did the right thing in not getting overly political. It would have been easy for her to express her views because of this massive platform she had, but I think there is a time and a place for that and halftime at the Super Bowl isn’t that time.
I’ve had a tough enough time trying to book entertainment for my wedding, so I can only imagine how hard the choice would be for the Super Bowl. I’m a huge fan of Coldplay, so they would have to be right up there. Bringing Michael Jackson back would be my No. 1 choice, but not even Roger Goodell has that much power!!
Tuesday, Feb. 7
From Michael, 8:26 a.m.
When Tiger won the Masters in 1997—at age 21, by 12 shots, in his first major as a pro—you were seven, getting close to eight, and already an accomplished junior golfer. How has Tiger’s immense life, his on-course and off-course life, shaped your own? If the equipment of Tiger’s boyhood (balata balls, steel shafts, little wooden woods) had never changed, how many majors and Tour events do you think he’d have won by now?
From Rory, 2:33 p.m.
I think Tiger’s life has shaped my own quite a bit. I was one of his biggest fans and remain one of his biggest fans to this day. I remember that weekend in April 1997 like it was yesterday. I think if you ask any fan of golf or tour player around my age, they will give you the exact same answer.
I didn’t really know Tiger until 2012. I had spent time in his company and played with him before that, but I feel like I started getting to know the “real” Tiger when it became likely I was going to sign an endorsement deal with Nike.
There’s a lot I can learn from Tiger, whether it be on the course or off it. He lived and still lives in a goldfish bowl, and I think he’s managed that part of his life very well for the most part. That’s one of the tough things about this generation and social media culture. Everyone knows where you are or what you’re doing every single day of the year. Gone are the days you can go to a bar and not get photographed or mentioned on Twitter/Facebook, etc. And that goes beyond athletes and celebrities. Privacy is a very uncommon commodity for most people these days. I can see why Tiger longs for it so much.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I think modern golf equipment has brought players much closer together. It’s more difficult to separate yourself from before. Don’t like hitting long irons? Hit a hybrid. You struggle with a slice with your driver? Put it on a draw setting and watch the ball go straight. So as dominant as Tiger was, do I think he would have been more dominant with a balata and persimmon drivers? I don’t know the answer, but I know modern golf equipment allowed players to get better than they ever were before. Along with advanced coaching techniques, knowledge and objective data, the game has never been played better by so many people than right now.
Below are two of the most iconic golf photographs ever taken. One is Hogan at the 1950 U.S. Open, at Merion, fourth round on the par-4 18th hole, a 1-iron second shot that led to a 4 that got Hogan in the three-man playoff, which he won. (Hy Peskin, for Life magazine.) The second is Tiger’s tee shot on Sunday at the 2001 Masters, which he won for his fourth consecutive major title. (Fred Vuich, for Sports Illustrated.) What catches your eye in these two photographs? Do these photos trigger any emotion in you? Do you have a favorite golf photograph? What feelings does it engender for you?
The thing about the famous Hogan at Merion photo for me is that it’s timeless. With that follow-through you could put him in modern clothes and it could look closer to this century. Obviously it was an iconic golf shot that has remained in golfing lore for over 60 years. You can’t say that about too many single golf shots. The Tiger photo on his way to winning the “Tiger slam” in 2001 just looks like a man in complete control of his world. I’ve always liked photos like these two photos because I think they depict very well the solitary pursuit golf sometimes is. This is one of my favourite golf photos for no other reason than the fact they look so f—ing cool!!
Wednesday, Feb. 8
From Michael, 6:34 a.m.
The Scots have a saying (borrowed here from Golf in the Kingdom by Michael Murphy), “Golf undresses a man.” Do you believe that to be true? Does golf show us what a person is really like? How might the phrase be applied to you? Your dad? How ’bout that Patrick Reed?
From Rory, 8:17 a.m.
I do believe golf undresses a person to a certain point. I feel like I can express myself more when I’m on the golf course, whether that is with happiness or joy because of a great shot or win or in the opposite way with disappointment or frustration because of a bad shot or a loss. I’m not sure golf can reveal the true person someone is, but it certainly brings out traits in their character. At the 2016 Ryder Cup, it brought out emotion in me that I never thought I had. Good and bad. I don’t think that was necessarily golf but more the competitive nature of the matches.
Honestly, my dad stays the same whether he’s on the golf course or not. I believe it’s why he’s such an engaging character. He never seems rushed or in a mood, always has time for everyone he comes across.
Patrick Reed is ultra competitive by nature, but he does it in the right spirit. He wants you to play great, he just wants to play better than that. I appreciate that about him.
When I first saw you, you were an 18-year-old amateur playing with unbridled joy in the 2007 British Open. You turned pro and achieved so much so quickly. Have your feelings for golf changed as you’ve gone from boy to man, and from amateur to professional? Amid the grind and the pressure of professional golf, is it important for you to stay in touch with the boyhood love you had for the game? If that can be done, how do you do it?
That Open in 2007 seems like a lifetime ago now! I’d like to say my feelings for golf haven’t changed since that time, but I’d be lying to you and myself. Professional golf is more competitive, more of a “job” than it’s ever been before. I was thrilled just to be teeing it up at Carnoustie that July. Now if I don’t contend (and win) in the Open, I’m not very happy.
The joy I get from the game now is when I see improvements. For example, over the past few months I’ve seen a big improvement in my putting. Not just the mechanics of my stroke but the thought process I go through before hitting a putt. That makes me happy. Of course, I still get unbridled joy by hitting a shot exactly how I saw it in my head or holing a putt under the most extreme pressure. I think it’s all about how that joy manifests itself out of different things. Ten years ago it was just teeing it up in the Open. Now it’s, holding the claret jug and realising all that went into making that dream a reality. As someone once said, You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Just like any relationship, it takes work!
Thursday, Feb. 9
From Michael, 7:13 a.m.
Since turning pro, what new person in your life has made the biggest impact on your on-course life? Can you illustrate, by story, how? Along the same lines: Since turning pro, what new person in your life has made the greatest impact in your off-course life? And, pardon the repetition, can you illustrate how with a story?
From Rory, 9:53 a.m.
There have been many people that have come into my life since I turned pro that have had a big impact. I’d say the one who has had the biggest impact on my on-course life would have to be Dr. Stephen McGregor. His PhD is in physiology, but he’s also a chartered physiotherapist. I started working with Steve in October of 2010 because as a 21-year-old who had never thought much about taking care of my body, I had back problems and was way too young for that. If I hadn’t sought Steve’s help and expertise I’m not sure where I would be today.
I have a degenerative L4/L5 lumber disc because I’ve been swinging a golf club since I was two years old. That’s millions of swings over time, and that takes its toll. Steve put me on a stability program for our first six months, as I’m hyper-mobile. Basically, he was preparing my joints and neural system for increased load down the line. Six and a half years later and I’m happy to say apart from a few little niggles here and there, from the rigours of travel and playing and practicing week in and week out, I’m relatively trouble-free. That’s from Steve putting programs together so I can practice and play for as long as I want. He’s also educated me on a lot of aspects of the anatomy so I have a better understanding of what my body is doing during the golf swing.
The greatest impact made on my off-course life has definitely been Erica. She has made me realise the person I want to be away from the golf course, which in turn I feel has made me better on it. The only way I can describe it is if golf were to disappear tomorrow, I don’t think I’d miss it as much as I would have a few years ago. I felt I needed golf to be complete as a person, as it’s been a part of my life since I was born. I don’t feel like that anymore.
Last, but not least: happiness. I suspect you remember the 2010 Open at the Old Course. Going 63-80 will do it! Late on that Friday afternoon, in those insane conditions, a friend and I left St. Andrews, drove over to Elie and played the great little seaside course there, Golf Club House Elie, on a peninsula, wind coming at us in every direction. We quit after 17 to get a last-call 10 p.m. dinner at the pub opposite the 18th tee. I’ve never enjoyed a round of golf (or a pub dinner) more. Just trying to do a little mood-lighting here to set up a final question, but before I do: Thank you, Rory, for doing this interview-by-email, a first for me and maybe for you. And in conclusion: Can you say when and where have you been happiest on a golf course when you were not playing in a professional tournament? What was it that made the occasion so special?
Happiness. Not one of the emotions I was feeling eating dinner that same night in St Andrews!!
The happiest I’ve been on a golf course not playing in a tournament would have to be the first time I played Augusta with my father. It was March 2015, and we did a father-son trip for two days with two members and their sons. Thirty-six holes each day, and I remember the sun was going down on the first evening and we were walking up to the 18th green. My dad and I both were exhausted but probably would have gone for another 18 if we could have. It’s such a special place, especially when it’s not Masters week. So serene and peaceful. Sharing a moment and setting like that with my dad is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. There’s nothing like your first time playing Augusta National, and I’m so glad I got to share that moment with my dad. Hopefully we get to do it again sometime, but that first trip will always stand out in my mind.