Rory McIlroy on match play strategy

Rory McIlroy won the WGC-Cadillac Match Play at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco by winning three matches in one day. I wonder if that’s some kind of record? He was on the tee at 6:45 Sunday morning to finish up Saturday’s match with Paul Casey. He won that first playoff hole and the match with a birdie 4. He was on the first tee at 7:30 for his match with Jim Furyk which he won 1UP finishing birdie, birdie, eagle. And then he was on the first tee at 11:55 for his championship match with Gary Woodland which he won 4&2 by getting to 4UP through 7. Woodland worked it back to 2DN, but McIlroy regained that early margin at the end. And he did all of that on six hours sleep.

There was the usual media center banter about this hole or that, this putt or that, but the thing I found most interesting is how the best match player in the world right now described what he was trying to do to win the matches: put pressure on the other player. 

This week I felt like I got better each and every day.  And I think that was more to do with just sharpness around the greens and putting and holing a few more putts and taking advantage of the opportunities I was giving myself.  And I knew I needed to do that especially after the first three days.  I knew that the matches would just get tougher and tougher.

Obviously the guys that you come up against, they’re playing well because they make it out of their groups and they’re progressing in their matches.  So I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, so I needed to up my game a little bit and thankfully I was able to.

The thing about match play is that it is unrelenting:

Yeah, in match play you definitely — in the positions that I found myself in, you have to dig a little bit deeper.  You have to try and find things from places you don’t know if they’re there or not.  And I was able to produce a couple of key shots when I needed to this week.

As a mental test, I don’t think we face anything tougher.  I think we face things just as tough in terms of majors.  The U.S. Open gets really tough and firm and the Masters is always a mental grind every year, but to play seven matches in five days is as tough as it’s going to get for us.

And then a really good mastery question from one of the media guys:

Q.  You talked a moment ago about the mental toughness and obviously you had some tough rounds:  Friday against Billy, against Paul yesterday, against Jim this morning.  Can you try to put into words what goes on in your mind when you’re down two with two holes to go and you need to make that shot?  Are you thinking about the next shot, about the next hole, how do you approach that?

Yeah, I think you’re definitely just thinking about your next shot or your next hole or whatever it is.  But in my mind, it was always if I can just apply a little bit of pressure, just make them feel it a little bit.  When you’re 2‑up with two to play, you’re feeling pretty good about yourself and you’re quite relaxed.

But if the guy applies just that little bit of pressure to you, it can make a world of difference.  And I was able to do that in my matches when I needed to do against Billy and Paul and against Jim.  And when I applied that little bit of pressure, I was able to take advantage of that.

I the hit a good chip shot against Paul last night on 17, and he blew his putt by and missed the one coming back.  So just a chip shot might have gotten into his head a little bit.

Same thing against Billy on that 17th hole.  I had a really good tee shot in there and just him seeing that tee shot might have made him feel a little more pressure and I was able to hole the putt.

That’s all you’re thinking about, just put them under any sort of pressure that you can, and see how they react to it.

Q.  Gary mentioned he felt you somehow flipped a switch and playing with more intensity.  Have you learned to be more cut throat and close things out a little more aggressively?

Yeah, definitely.  I felt like I’ve had that intensity all week.  Honestly those first few holes with Gary, that was probably the most relaxed or jovial or whatever you want to call it I’ve been the whole week because I know Gary well and I get on really well with him.  There’s no point in not talking to someone if you’re usually friendly with them and all that sort of stuff.  But we’re both trying to win a tournament here at the same time.

Once I got up on the match, I just tried to up the intensity a little bit and take advantage of that.  And that’s what I was able to do.  And I feel like every time I get in these positions to win tournaments and close tournaments out and do it, it adds that and adds to that ability to really knuckle down when I need to.

But he also applied the pressure to himself in that first match in the morning:

Q.  What was the toughest part about, as you said, having to dispatch basically three people?  And I’m wondering if it had even the fact that all three of those people are looking at you as the No.1 player in the world, maybe they’re bringing a little extra motivation, kind of like Manchester United, people always bring their best games to play them.  Do you feel that bulls eye in match play?

I don’t really feel it.  I mean, some people might bring a little bit more intensity with them if they’re playing me, but I’m sort of treating every match as if it’s the same.  I’m going out there and trying to play the best golf that I possibly can, and hopefully at the end of the day that’s good enough to win.

And probably of the three today, I’d say the toughest thing was standing on the first tee this morning at 6:45 and thinking if I’ve just got up to come all this way to play one hole (laughter)…

So I was putting a lot of pressure on myself.  I don’t want to have to do this just for one hole, I want to be here all day.  So I put a lot of pressure on myself and thankfully I was able to make the birdie and get through.

The obvious follow-up question to that would be, “How do you manage putting pressure on yourself without going over the line and hamstringing yourself?”

But that answer will have to be something we can ponder together until I get a chance to ask him that question in person.

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