Rory McIlroy looked a little uneasy on the first tee at the U.S. Open yesterday afternoon as he was getting ready to hit his tee shot to begin his third round. He had just been announced to the throng surrounding the tee and he was settling himself in preparation to hit his tee shot.
But he did not have the same look of ease on his face that he did the day before when he looked unemotionally placid the whole of the day. This time his eyes were ever so slightly scrunched revealing a nervous, self-consciousness that hadn’t been there before. They say that no matter who you are and how long you’ve been playing, you get nervous on the first tee.
And sure enough, hitting the safer 3 wood, his drive landed in the right edge of the fairway and dribbled into the first cut of rough stopping alarmingly just short of the bunker complex. It was a lack of precision that we also hadn’t seen before. The previous day, the broadcast put together of a collage of all of his tee shots and not only were they in the fairway, they were in the middle of the fairway. It was uncanny.
As it turned out, he went on to make his par, but he still wasn’t quite settled when he got to the 3rd tee: he hit it in the right rough, was blocked by a tree and had to just chip out. In the fairway once again, he hit a nifty wedge to 2 feet to easily save his par.
And then he hit it in the right greenside bunker on 4.
What’s the similarity between these three shots? They all went right, the classic indicator of nervousness. Why? Because when you’re nervous, you hold the club just a little tighter and can’t release it. That’s a problem for McIroy because he hits all of his shots right to left anyway. If he doesn’t release it, the ball starts to the right but doesn’t come back.
He hit the bunker shot to inches and saved his par:
…the first couple of holes just took me a bit of time to get into the round. But once I made those up-and-downs on 3 and 4, I found my rhythm and started to play some really good golf.
And that, as they say, was that. He birdied 5 and was on his way, making three more birdies against an unlucky bogey on 10. And just how did he manage that?
What I did today, I tried to set myself a little target, little goals, just because it kept me from focusing on the leaderboard and focusing on how far ahead I was or anything like that. So just giving yourself little goals throughout the round, that really kept me in the present and kept me focused on my game.
But there was something beyond these intellectual thoughts, this compartmentalizing of his thoughts. There was losing touch with all of his ego-thoughts, or as he called it, “lose yourself:”
Q. You said earlier that you did feel a little bit nervous, and with tomorrow coming up, it’s probably going to be a little bit more. What swing thoughts or mantras do you draw upon at those moments on the golf course when you do start to get nervous?
Yeah, going back to what I said yesterday, I’m really focusing on the process of making a good decision [about what the target should be] and making a good swing. If you can do that and if you can lose yourself in trying to do that, that’s really what I’ve tried to do, make good decisions, make good golf swings, and as long as you make a good decision, even if you don’t quite make a good golf swing, you can’t really do anything about it. That’s all I’ve been trying to do, especially today, really lose yourself in that shot that you’re playing at that moment in time and not think about anything else.
In the culture of golf, indeed, in the culture of the modern world, “losing yourself” is not the first choice our acculturation produces. Our models are all about thinking things through, breaking down the parts to understand the whole and then working on the parts to make us whole.
We labor long and hard for years with our coaches to intellectually examine all of the parts and then practice conforming our swing-moves to the norm. We “mold” young players. We “bring them along.”
All the while, the geniuses among us are looking for ways to unleash themselves, to unsheathe themselves. To unsheathe themselves from themselves so that they can be free, so that they can be free-flowing. Free so that they can finally realize the highest expression of themselves: a soaring spiritual essence operating in the world, devoid of any ego considerations and reconciled to the foolishness of trying to dictate to the body’s genius. Losing your “self.”
If McIlroy manages to do what he did all day Friday and for most of yesterday, it will be yet another opportunity to watch a consummate demonstration of these ideas. Certainly watch his swing—it’s a thing of beauty—but most of all watch his face. I have never seen the placid detachment he was able to achieve in any other player. While Tiger clearly demonstrated being deep in the zone, it was always punctuated with anger, fierce determination and an indomitable will to win. And he accomplished true greatness doing that.
But McIlroy is merely having fun seeing if he can pull off golf shots without thinking about the import of the moment…or his swing.