Rory McIlroy on Improvement, the Mastery Process and Patience

Rory had his tune-up for the WGC- HSBC Championship with his 18-hole challenge match with Tiger Woods. Coming off a T27 at the BMW Championship in Shanghai, he flew to Hainan Island off Southern China for the match. It was a terrific match with Tiger missing an eagle putt on 18 and Rory making his birdie putt to hold him off. Back in Shanghai, it lead to a 2-stroke lead after the first round after a 7-under 65 that included a bogey.

It was as if all the rounds he shot in the 70s at BMW set the stage for tightening things up for “The Match” and that carried through to the first round of HSBC. He began with the most basic of things, reading the greens and the speed of the greens.

Yeah, I felt like last week [at BMW] I wasn’t reading the greens very well and my pace was off, as well.  You have that combination, you’re not going to hole any putts.

So just having worked a little bit on green reading on Tuesday and hit a lot of long putts on the putting green just to try to get the pace of these greens.  You know, it felt pretty good out there.  I let a couple of putts get away from me, a couple of the downhill ones, but I was able to hole ones coming back, which was good.  Tried not to 3‑putt yesterday [in the practice round] and I didn’t have any 3‑putts today, which was a positive, which was a good sign.

Earlier he joked that The Match was his first victory of the year. Joke or not, it was a significant element in getting back on track. It was after all, against the No. 1 player in the world: 

Q.  I know you’re joking about picking up your first win of the year on Monday, but still, the way you played the back nine there, does that help at all in terms of a little upward swing?

Yeah, it does.  You know, it’s obviously different playing in an environment like that and coming out here trying to win this golf tournament, even though I did hold off Tiger Woods down the stretch (laughter).

It comes from — Korea, the start of this little stretch, I drove the ball great in Korea.  Short game wasn’t great.  You know, I’d say probably the majority of this field — if I had driven the ball like in Korea, they could have won, easy.  I obviously just didn’t play well enough, approach shots in there.

And then last week, I saw some good signs, as well, at BMW.  I just didn’t hole enough putts.  And then it’s just learning from each week and just trying to put the pieces together.  You know, a little bit of confidence from Monday, of course, but I think it was these two previous weeks just getting back into competitive play and learning what I needed to do to improve and sort of work on those things coming into this week.

He took four weeks off coming into this part of his year and also took the opportunity to change both is driver and his ball.

Q.  How much would you put to having a nice four‑week, clean break from golf getting ready for this final run, and how much do you put to the ball/driver combination?

It’s definitely a combination of both.  Having four weeks off, I spent most of that time back home in Northern Ireland and Ireland and time with [his childhood coach] Michael Bannon and getting back to doing what we used to do definitely helped.

And then getting this new ball and new driver, the driver, I’m very confident with the driver and the ball has made just a little bit of difference around the greens.  It’s a little softer and I can put a little bit more spin on it, and obviously that helps with some of the more delicate shots.

This next response is great because it goes to the heart of the mastery process itself; just staying in the process, doing the work and expecting good results. No doubts and no impatience. He also brings a sense of perspective to the equation to help stay patient:

Q.  You clearly set yourself extremely high standards.  I know it’s early stages here but would you say you’ve become maybe quite restless with the way the season’s been?

I wouldn’t say restless.  I’ve tried to stay patient the entire season, and I know that if I believe that I’m working on the right things and I am working on the right things, then things will start to fall into place sooner or later.

It’s obviously frustrating when you’ve had a couple of seasons previous where you have had success, and not being able to emulate that — there’s times where you definitely get frustrated.  I wouldn’t say that I was restless in terms of trying to get a win this season, because I think that the best way to approach it is to stay patient and not to force the issue too much.  And that’s what I’ve sort of tried to do.

You know, the way I look at it, if I have a 25‑year career, you know, nine months of a 25‑year career isn’t actually that long.  It’s not even a whole — if you look at in the time you play a 18‑hole golf course, it’s really a half a hole that you’re struggling on.

I wouldn’t say restless, but obviously there’s a point in time where you’re thinking to yourself, right, come on, let’s get this back on track.  But I’ve tried to stay as patient as possible.

Q.  …How did you take pressure off the game of golf outside of golf?

Oh, okay.  I played a couple of games of football, soccer, when I was back home in Ireland the last few weeks.  But apart from that, not really much.  I mean, I’ll go to the gym after this, so that takes my mind off it for a couple of hours or an hour or whatever it is, depending how energetic I’m feeling.

But yeah, most days when I’m at tournaments, I’ll go to the gym and that sort of takes my mind away from the golf.

Working out isn’t just mindless exercise. Done right, the routine should be well-thought out with a trainer — and especially when working unsupervised — attention needs to be paid not only to the muscle group you’re trying to work, but also to the ancillary muscle groups that will try to jump in and make it easier.

Hence, bicep curls are most effective when done sitting on the end of a bench, the bench raised upright as a seat back, so that the body can’t porpoise the weights up and down.

When you are really focusing on each of those muscle groups, you’re not idly thinking about golf. At least you shouldn’t be. And these guys are all very good at that.

Be Here Now,” Ram Dass.

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