The greatest gifts have the broadest underbellies. This is more or less the story of Tiger Woods' career -- and life. The temptation that comes when everyone tells you that nobody has ever done it better is nearly impossible to stave off.
I'm not talking about the temptation that ultimately unraveled Woods' personal life, rather the temptation to get one iota better he has always had to live alongside. To improve not 1% but 0.1%. And while Tiger was better than almost everyone who has ever lived at reinventing himself and his swing, his body ultimately broke down because he pretended like it was impervious to the effects of age and gravity.
To not only have but develop gifts is a good thing in golf, but it can be problematic because, when you reach the very top of the world, you can begin to convince yourself -- or be convinced -- that widening your skillset by adding length or changing equipment or trying to hit new shot shapes is the only way forward. You have conquered everything else, why not perfection itself? For some of the best to ever do it, the idea of "I was good enough to get here, surely I can make this tweak to get there" is very compelling.
Rory McIlroy has struggled with this reality off and on over the course of his career, and while his path forward seems obvious -- just get better from 100 yards and in -- it's not always that simple from the inside looking out. McIlroy added legendary coach Pete Cowen to his stable of advisers before the Masters this year. Around the same time, he admitted that Bryson DeChambeau's pursuit of extreme length within the game had affected him.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't anything to do with what Bryson did at the U.S. Open," McIlroy said in March. "I think a lot of people saw that and were like, 'Whoa, if this is the way they're going to set golf courses up in the future, it helps. It really helps.'"
Then he noted in May that he'd fully transitioned to hitting a fade off the tee. When he announced this move, the golf world reacted with bereavement normally reserved for memorial services. In some ways, that's what it was. The death of the deadliest and most effective, not to mention most breathtaking, weapon in the sport. McIlroy's astonishingly high, searing draw with driver has made a lot of people in this profession a lot of money. Then he stopped doing it.
On Sunday, after winning the CJ Cup at Summit by a stroke over Collin Morikawa for the 20th win of his PGA Tour career, McIlroy referenced the last few months of chasing … something.
"I think for the last few months I was maybe trying to be someone else to try and get better," said McIlroy, "and I sort of realized that being me is enough, and I can do things like this."
"I think part of the sort of emotion at the end of [the Ryder Cup] was to do with that week, but it was also probably to do with the last few months in terms of searching to try to get better and sort of the realization that I don't need to search for anything, it's all right here," he later added.
I don't know what McIlroy was referencing when he said he was trying to improve by being someone else, and whether he is still working with Cowen (or going back to exclusively hitting draws) seems to currently be up in the air, but I do know that stasis is the enemy of all athletes, and especially golfers and especially self-aware, thoughtful golfers like McIlroy. And, again, the reality that you've become one of the 30 best golfers ever in your first 30 years of life convinces you that you can probably move to a mildly different shot shape off the tee if you feel like it. This is the omnipresent temptation.
Rick Gehman is joined by Mark Immelman, Kyle Porter and Greg DuCharme to break down and react to Rory McIlroy's victory at the 2021 CJ Cup. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
McIlroy's most admirable trait is also his greatest vulnerability. Because he does not walk around with the degree of arrogance with which most elite athletes -- or really any high achievers in any profession -- walk around, he is immensely likable but also perhaps tremendously at risk of always needing to prove something to himself and to those around him and of not being completely confident in his craft. That he actually does care adds a degree of difficulty to the already-established temptation of getting even a sliver better at golf. He has mostly suppressed this recently by convincing himself that his life is a dream life (which it is) and that he doesn't need success in golf to have joy (which is healthy!).
It seems insane to us as normal humans that McIlroy (RORY MCILROY!) would struggle with confidence, that he would even ask the question we all ask from time to time: Am I good enough? But we have a lot of evidence over the years that this is true. It takes a lot of discipline and an almost comical level of self-belief to remain the player you have been, no matter how good you once were, when that player seems very far from success as it has often seemed with McIlroy over the last year. This is low-key one reason Phil Mickelson has had the career he's had and how he seemingly talked a sixth major win into existence earlier this year.
To play elite golf for a long period of time is to hold an unparalleled skillset in tension with a satisfaction that what you are bringing to the table is good enough to prevail over all the other elite skillsets perhaps twice a year (and maybe more if you're lucky). The allure here is to go down rabbit holes that gain you fractions of strokes over the course of a month or a year. Mickelson once declared that his goal was to drop 0.25 strokes per round on the PGA Tour. If you have a path forward there like DeChambeau did with driver, it can work. But it's extraordinarily difficult to do at the level of golf about which we're discussing.
I've always thought about Dustin Johnson and McIlroy in parallel with one another. Though D.J. is older, they have both owned the last decade and a half on the PGA Tour, and McIlroy has often talked about how much he admires D.J.'s disposition when it comes to golf. That D.J. doesn't have to try to forget what happened a hole ago or last round is one of the great built-in advantages a player with top-10 talent can possibly have. D.J. has likely never even considered whether being D.J. is enough because he doesn't care if it's not. That's aspirational, and it's something McIlroy -- because he is the way he is -- will be at war with for the rest of his career.
McIlroy's success could be dependent on bursts of self-belief that are ironically engendered by failure. The two most famous failures he's had over the last few years both ended in a well of emotion. He broke down after missing the cut at the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush and seemed overwhelmed by how much his home crowd believed in him. He went on to finish in the top 10 in eight of his next 10 events to close out 2019, winning two of them. A similar situation unfolded at this year's Ryder Cup, and McIlroy won in his next start.
"Probably the Sunday singles at the Ryder Cup," McIlroy said of when it came to him that being Rory McIlroy is enough. "I went out against Xander, and all I wanted to do was win the point, right? That's all I could do. Couldn't do anything else. Hadn't done much else the rest of the week. I went out there and I won my point by doing whatever I could. I wasn't trying to be perfect, I wasn't trying to hit shots that I wasn't comfortable hitting, I just went out there to try to win my match and I did."
I did some of my own reflecting on the Ryder Cup in the wake of McIlroy's emotion and how he framed it for me in the days that followed. He wasn't crying because he'd let his team down, and I don't really think he was crying because he'd won or lost either. Rather, he was crying because on Saturday night, some people in that European team room said, "Hey, it's Sunday at the Ryder Cup, Rory goes out first" even though he had been absolutely horrid throughout the week. He was crying because the people around him were saying they believed in him and he was desperate to come through for them.
When you're Rory McIlroy, or anyone at this level, you pay a lot of people a lot of money to believe in you, and you constantly feel the need to validate their belief by achieving or accomplishing more. So when a group of folks you're tethered to for one week every two years believe in you of their own free will independent of what you have or have not accomplished (and he didn't accomplish much those first two days at Whistling Straits), the freedom that provides you to be yourself and to have the relief that being yourself is enough -- no matter what "enough" means -- is a freedom unfamiliar to so many of the best players in the world in any sport. That's the power of the Ryder Cup and why that weekend perhaps unlocked something in McIlroy that he can take into 2022.
As he almost always does, McIlroy delivered a wonderful life lesson on Sunday in the middle of a soliloquy on the current state of his game, especially in light of the pandemic that has been oppressing us for the last 18 months. Golf always makes you feel inadequate because, even your very best, the apex of who you are, is rarely enough to win a tournament. However, McIlroy's golf story is also our life story.
Improvement should always be worked toward, but not at the expense of essence. To step outside of one's gifts, to stray from one's lane, as it were, is a path that's littered with glittering careers and lives. The world is always asking us to be more than we can reasonably be, and the golf world is no different. To reject that and find peace by simply doing the best we can with what we have (which, with McIlroy when it comes to golf is a lot) is a path worth taking.
Being me is enough.
Even when it doesn't result in wins or success as it is traditionally defined. Even when it feels like it's not close to enough. Even when you are compelled to try and become more than you can possibly be as a human being.
Being me is enough.