Top-Ranked Golfer Rory McIlroy On His Greatest Shot Ever, Tiger Woods Vs. Jack Nicklaus, And More
“Let’s just say that Jack was streets ahead in his day while Tiger dominated in his—but Tiger’s 15 Majors may not quite be the end of that amazing journey.”
Rory McIlroy, the world’s number one golfer, has climbed from humble beginnings to the very top of the sport. Today the Irish athlete and UNICEF ambassador looks down from on high at all who seek to topple him—raking in winnings and accolades along the way.
With a career among the most lucrative in golf history, the London Sunday Times put his net worth at about $170 million in 2019. His tournament appearance fees (said to top $2 million apiece) and winnings (such as the 2019 Fedex Cup where he won a cool $15 million) are just part of his estimated annual earnings of about $40 million, making him one of the world’s highest-paid athletes.
As is often the case with true winners, the trappings and financial rewards are not what drive McIlroy. Perhaps easily said when you are on a roll and have deals with the likes of Nike, TaylorMade, and Omega watches. And while the need to win is what drives him, his arsenal also includes compassion.
Rory also has fine taste in supercars (he’s been spotted at the wheel of a Lamborghini Aventador) and property (reportedly owning houses in Florida and Dubai), so we figured we’d ask his views on life during a pandemic, the future, tuxedos, watches and golf balls. He’ll hopefully be hitting them again in earnest with the PGA tour slated to resume—sans spectators, later this summer.
How has your daily routine changed since the onset of the pandemic?
Like almost everybody, my routine has changed beyond anything I could have imagined. For starters, I hadn’t played golf until I hit a few balls at the range very recently. My last competitive round was in March at The Players and then I didn’t swing a club until the end of April—pretty unheard of at this typically very busy time in the golfing calendar. An unexpected break is usually welcome, but this was a really different and extended layoff for us all. I tried to keep a consistent routine each day during the lockdown period and ensure something of a structure to my days at home, [with] most a mixture of reading, gym, working with my commercial partners and keeping in touch with friends and family with plenty of Zoom calls.
What are you doing to keep creative?
I’ve been able to put into practice my belief that the body and mind need to be active to remain healthy. I continue to read widely and throw myself into completing complicated jigsaw puzzles to have a bit of fun and help with my concentration. My fitness, which has always been important to me, has taken on an even greater significance in the past weeks. Running and skipping workouts are working wonders, but my recent passion for Peloton cycling, where I compete against other riders (some of them golfers), really keeps that competitive spirit in me alive. The last couple of months have completely altered what would have been a hectic schedule of events and I intend to continue to use this time to recharge, stay fit and enjoy the least amount of travel since my days as an amateur golfer.
How do you see the sport of golf adapting to the post-pandemic world?
I find it difficult to imagine if there will be such a thing as normal for the golfing world, but we will adapt to whatever new reality professional golf becomes. All aspects of every sport, from players and sponsors to media partners and fans, will return to a changed landscape. And while the importance of sport to the lives of millions cannot be underestimated, including my own, its return really needs to be a cautious and controlled one. New measures are essential to ensure the safe return of golf and I look forward to the special atmosphere, excitement and contribution fans bring to sport.
You’re the world number one, but it was a long road getting there. Do you have an inspiring story from your ascent?
I think that one of the best shots I ever played was a hook—but it was an intentional one. In a playoff at the Hong Kong Open in 2008, I pulled my drive on the 18th, our second playoff hole, and left myself an almost impossible shot from behind a tree. I was about 130 yards from the green and needed a 50-yard hook to get to the putting surface. Needless to say, I made the green but lost the playoff hole (and the tournament) to a great approach and tap-in birdie from Lin Wen-tang.
Does a bad workman blame his clubs? Or is golf like Formula One where the tools are (arguably) more important than the man?
Even if I’ve occasionally tried, I don’t think blaming bad tools was ever really justified. It’s especially the case in today’s game as professional golfers have their equipment customized and tweaked to their own needs and desires—so “tool blaming” is definitely out! There is obviously a time when prototypes and experimental equipment will be flawed during the testing process, but it’s a different story when clubs are taken to the course for competitive play. It’s pretty safe to say that today’s available club and ball technology do not allow a golfer on the course with substandard kit. I think we can pare it all back down to the talents, both physical and mental, of the individual.
What’s your dream shot?
My dream shot is the one I visualize and then execute successfully! I just love when a hole fits my eye; I pick a spot in the distance, make a good swing and get the desired outcome. But golf ’s so much more than dream shots. It’s about getting the job done from lies we don’t think we deserve, swirling wind and near impossible pin positions. Today’s professional golfer needs to be an able and creative shotmaker, moving the ball left to right and right to left as dictated by the demands of different courses and conditions. And then, sometimes, dream shots can be found amongst all that clutter.
The golf tuxedo: discuss. Or is it shorts and spandex polo shirts all the way from here?
Golf fashion trends and materials have certainly evolved over time, and usually it’s for the better. For casual games and practice days, I really like the freedom of wearing shorts, but I’m still a believer, even a traditionalist, in a smart polo and trousers during competitive play. For me, it’s almost like putting on business attire when I walk onto the first tee during a tournament. From a material perspective, modern golf apparel is all about performance. Shoes are lighter with better traction, molded to your feet and ultimately helping the foundation of your swing. The apparel materials are all about performance, temperature control, and designed to reduce friction when I’m swinging the club. Ultimately, I’m all for the traditional tuxedo look, but with an eye towards the lightweight and breathable, and performance fabrics of today.
You’re an ambassador for Omega watches. Do you notice the time when you are in the heat of a match? How do you use time?
Time is a huge part of my life, not just on the golf course in the heat of a tournament. The structuring of my event schedule is entirely about strict time management and optimizing my tournament preparation—it really is like a military exercise! I am also very time conscious with practice sessions in preparation for a tournament. I like to have short, focused sessions within a set timeframe, ultimately helping me focus on quality over quantity on the range. Now I’m even more time-focused since I’ve started to wear my Omega Seamaster “Ultra Light” on the course. My tendency is always to play fast in competition and I’m conscious of where on a course I’d like to be at a given time. That doesn’t always work out, especially if the pace of play is a little slow, but at least I get to check out my watch more often!
Who’s the best golfer ever? And why?
Oh, the eternally difficult golf question: Jack or Tiger? As professional golfers’ Major victories tend to be the ultimate measure of greatness, Jack Nicklaus would be deemed the greatest golfer ever because of his tally. But I don’t believe for a minute that things are that simple. If we throw a few more things into the mix such as technological advances over the years and the greatly improved standard of today’s top golfers, that question becomes a little more complex to answer. Let’s just say that Jack was streets ahead in his day while Tiger dominated in his—but Tiger’s 15 Majors may not quite be the end of that amazing journey.
What else are you good at aside from swinging a club? And where does that lead after you get to that final 18th hole?
I have a real passion for fitness, health and business. I’ve even said before that if golf hadn’t worked out for me many years ago, I would have probably worked in the business end of sport or fitness. My decision to finish my education early and pursue golf as a career was, I believe, the correct one but I do have a real appetite for reading and increased understanding. In my world as a professional golfer, I have developed a lot of interest in the areas and opportunities around health and wellbeing—things I hope to put a lot more energy into as I head towards my golfing twilight years. That said, I hope my golfing journey has a long road left to run. At 31 years of age, I like to think I’m still somewhere on the front nine of my career!