Rory McIlroy: The value in failure

Rory McIlroy had a tough week last week at the Honda Classic, missing the cut and spending the weekend a short drive away at his house. That was particularly deflating because he was using the Honda as a tuneup for this week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship at the resuscitated Doral Country Club in Miami, Florida, which was rescued out of bankruptcy a couple of years ago by Donald Trump.

Yeah, I guess after coming off a three‑week break, you never quite know how your game is going to be when you come back.  It wasn’t a bad week to see where I was.  I identified a few things I needed to work on over the weekend, and feel like I’ve addressed those.  And it was mostly just to do with playing in the wind.  I wasn’t comfortable playing a few shots that I needed last week at PGA National.

With the wind being the problem, it was good thing his house was a short drive away. He got to practice in the same weekend winds that pretty much kept the reins on the players who survived the cut: 

Luckily it was still pretty windy over the last couple of days at home, so got to play in the wind and even the practice round out there earlier, the wind got up on the back nine, so it was nice to be able to come and play some of the shots that I think I’ll need this week.

I just practiced and played a little bit, and at least I know going into this week where my game is.  So even if things maybe don’t go my way at some point during the round, I’ll know how to manage it a little bit better.

But there was a bright side.

Look, in fairness, if I was going to miss a weekend, it wasn’t a bad one to miss, being at home and with all the delays and everything.  It gave me a bit of time to work on my game and work on what I needed to.

And he apparently was successful. He spent Monday playing in the Seminole Golf Club’s Pro-Member and shot 63 to win it:

To shoot a score like that around that caliber of golf course is always nice.  I guess it just shows, my game is there.  I just struggled a little bit in the wind last week, but I feel like I’ve rectified that since.

And so he discovered a problem in his game at Honda. He was having difficulty hitting draws to hold the ball against a wind from the left. But he fixed it:

Yeah, as I said, I could have approached it two ways.  I could have really got down on myself and sort of wondered, where did that come from, or look at it and say, okay, well, this was the first event from a three‑week break, and there was a few things in my game that weren’t quite sharp enough; and I went away and worked on those, and hopefully make sure that it doesn’t happen again this week.

So does he learn more from successes of failures?

Definitely from failures.  I don’t really — I don’t feel like you learn that much with your wins or success.  I think you learn about yourself and you learn that you can handle the pressure or you can do certain things under pressure that you mightn’t have done before.

But definitely during your losses is where you learn the most.  I’ve always said that the last round at Augusta in ‘11 [symbolized by his forlorn body language as he contemplated a recovery from the cabins left of the 10th hole] was a huge learning curve for me and I took a lot from that day, just how I approach final rounds, and especially when you’re in the lead and there’s a bit of pressure there.

But yeah, I think you learn a lot more from your mistakes, you always do, because you make a mistake and you try to make sure that you don’t make it again.

In fact, he credits his monster U.S. Open win at Congressional a couple of months later to that drubbing of his game at Augusta.

The reason for the powerful insights from failure is the lessons are so stark, they snap us out of our steady-state reverie. We go though life in a sort of mild haze, but when golf disaster strikes, it snaps us out of it and we are able to see our mistakes more clearly.

For example, McIlroy discovered that the reason he was unable to hit the draw against the left wind was very subtle. He was getting “a little too far away” from the swing plane on the way down. Read that as subtly coming over the top. Which, all things being equal, means the ball has to go to the right. So if you’re unintentionally cutting the ball in a left wind, who knows where that thing is going to come down. He didn’t know, which is why he shot 73, 74 when the leaders were shooting 5- and 6-under.

The other thing about failure is its finality. It stops you in your tracks because none of your consciousness is partitioned on physical performance; that’s over. And so, without the physical stimulation, the mind is able to turn inward in a sort of reflective melancholy. That’s why players who’ve had a bad day frequently have that glazed look in their eyes; their mind is replaying the disaster until the details become more clear to them.

Frequently, the first session on the range the next morning has a clarity that was demonstrably was not there when the player actually needed it.

At least that’s what happened to me. Boy do I have some lessons from failure. But now I don’t get so upset by mistakes because I know the mass they are adding to my game and to myself.

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