Rory gets a good read
11 Min Read
Books helped fuel last year’s PLAYERS win and now Rory McIlroy has moved on to other titles in preparation for his title defense
Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR
First off, they’re books, not e-books, audio books, comic books, green-reading books or yardage books.
Pulp. Paper. Binding.
“Books,” Rory McIlroy says. “I have some on my phone and e-books just as references, and you can highlight stuff, but I take it in more when I’m holding the book and get to turn the pages.”
Yes, dear reader, your defending champion of THE PLAYERS Championship is himself a reader. McIlroy and his wife, Erica, keep a small library at their home in South Florida, and while some of the books there are purely decorative, others are a lot more than that.
“Erica is more into lifestyle stuff,” McIlroy says, “maybe not as much self-help type things, where I definitely went down this path of how the mind works and how to approach things.”
Given the fact that he is coming off a season in which he won THE PLAYERS, RBC Canadian Open, TOUR Championship and the FedExCup and Player of the Year, and this season has already seen him add another victory (World Golf Championship-HSBC Champions) and return to world No. 1, you’d have to say that path has been the right one for McIlroy.
Groucho Marx said, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” But can reading make you a better golfer? Anecdotally, the answer is yes.
Every winner of THE PLAYERS can point to several critical factors. Driving. Iron play. Putting. But McIlroy did more than just crush the field in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green and par-3 scoring last year. He crushed books. He read. It was simple, but profound.
“I spend enough time around a lot of impressive people, and one of the common denominators, always, is they read a lot,” McIlroy says. “Readers are usually successful people and great people to be around. I had read before, but it had always been biographies and fictional stuff. Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten more into the psychology or self-help or that sort of stuff.”
Ballast for the brain
Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it. – P.J. O’Rourke
To get an idea of what books mean to McIlroy, consider the fourth hole in last year’s final round. It was a cloudy 59 degrees and nearing 2:30 p.m. ET. He was crushing the driver – he would trail only Tommy Fleetwood in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee – and liked the course better in March than in May, as he could see it better from the tees. TPC Sawgrass had over-seeded and thus created sharper definition between fairways (lighter) and rough (darker).
The fourth is not hard if you hit the fairway, but from the right fairway bunker or the rough, it can be tricky to hit the green, which is guarded by a moat. One stroke behind Jon Rahm entering Sunday, McIlroy had already worked his way into the lead but found the right rough off the tee. Now, with a wedge, he swung and watched in horror as his ball came out left and soft.
It was cold; even though sunrise had been at 7:33 a.m., he had not had much chance to show off the green St. Patrick’s Day shirt under his blue pullover. Jason Day waited as he took a drop.
There were a lot of places McIlroy’s mind could have gone. Having been in contention but not won in his previous five TOUR starts, all top-six finishes, he could have thought, Here we go again.
“He can’t close, he can’t play on Sundays,” McIlroy said later, describing the noise that had seeped up from the muck. “Blah, blah, blah.”
Here was a player who could do no wrong as he won the 2011 U.S. Open, 2012 PGA Championship, and 2014 Open Championship and PGA, but now he apparently could do no right. Here we go again? Yeah, McIlroy could have gone there.
Reading, though, had steeled him. Avoid the big reaction. That’s one of the tenets of one of McIlroy’s favorite authors, Ryan Holiday, who espouses the stoicism of figures like Marcus Aurelius in “The Obstacle is the Way” and “The Ego is the Enemy.”
“Not giving in to your emotions,” says McIlroy, who in the last year has befriended the author. (They trade the occasional email.) “Not being impulsive, being a little bit more rational, taking a step back to think about things logically. That’s what has helped me.
“I mean, if you go back to THE PLAYERS,” he adds, “I went from leading or tied for the lead to a couple behind, but I didn’t impulsively go and chase some birdies. I was like, OK, this is fine, we’ve got a lot of holes left. There’s a lot that can happen, stay patient, and show poise, and all the P words that I like to use. All of that comes from reading and a little bit of inward reflection and figuring out what I need to do to get the best out of myself.”
In the end, McIlroy recovered to win the TOUR’s signature event.
On a wild day in which a half-dozen people had a share of the lead, he accepted his double and turned in 1 over, then made four back-nine birdies to post a 2-under 70 and win by a shot over Jim Furyk. His best shot, he said later, was the 6-iron he hit out of the fairway bunker at the par-4 15th, his ball stopping 14 feet from the pin before he made the putt. His most important shot, though, might have been his gaffe at the fourth, the fulcrum on which his week and perhaps his entire season could have swung one way or the other.
Looking beyond accomplishments
If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book. – J.K. Rowling
“Tiger reads a lot,” says McIlroy, who also has read popular novelists like J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown. “But he reads a lot of, like, the medical journal and studies that have been published and stuff like this. He’s a big reader, but I don’t know if he’s a big reader of books, per se.”
Lucas Glover is a reader. He went through a large chunk of the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, and is now onto “The Body,” by Bill Bryson. Sometimes, Glover talks books with Peter Malnati, also a reader. David Duval had a bookish side even in his prime.
The written word is alive and well. Asked at the Masters last year to name the best book he’d read in the previous 12 months, McIlroy was surprisingly expansive.
“The Greatest Salesman in the World, by Og Mandino, that’s one that I sort of refer back to every now and again,” replied McIlroy. “Either of the Ryan Holiday books are pretty good, The Obstacle is the Way or Ego is the Enemy. Just started on Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, so getting into that. There’s four.”
He later mentioned a fifth, “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport. McIlroy, who has deleted several apps from his phone, wonders what all of our screens are doing to us and tries to go low-to-no-tech during tournament weeks, preferring jigsaw puzzles and, yes, books.
But why? It’s not that McIlroy, an only child, staved off loneliness with his books. Nor was he ever obsessed with academia. “It was never my forte,” he said in a lengthy interview with the Irish Independent. “I was good enough to get by, but I never excelled.”
It’s more accurate to say he was seeking ballast amid the pitching and yawing of life as a public figure. Was he a good person because he was winning golf tournaments? Was he a bad one when he wasn’t? Even amid his dazzling early success, he felt slightly unmoored.
“One thing I used to do in the past is let what I shot that day influence who I was or my mood,” McIlroy said last season, when he also led the TOUR with 14 top-10 finishes and won the Byron Nelson Award for adjusted scoring average (69.057). “It’s something I worked hard on because who I am as a person isn’t who I am as a golfer.”
In other words, at 30 he has become acutely aware of the perils of accomplishment. Regarding the Jobs biography, McIlroy was struck by the Apple major domo’s failures and comebacks and achievements, but also by the rare glimpses into Jobs’ humanity.
“It seems like he was a pretty hard guy to like at the start, and I think that’s why I found the book so slow-going,” he says now. “I was like, I don’t know if I like this guy. And then as it goes on and he gets sick and starts to appreciate his family more, you get a sense that he’s turned the corner a bit, and there are things he values maybe more than just trying to create another cool product.”
When not caring is good
If you are going to get anywhere in life, you have to read a lot of books. – Roald Dahl
At the Ryder Cup in France in 2018, McIlroy came upon another favorite author: Mark Manson, author of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F---: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life,” followed by “Everything is F-----: A Book About Hope.” As the titles suggest (we’ve, ahem, slightly altered them), his books are equal parts profound and profane. They’re also very funny.
“(European Captain) Thomas Bjorn’s partner, Grace, gave Mark Manson’s (Subtle Art) book to all the wives,” McIlroy says. “… My wife read it before I did and gave it to me and said, ‘I think you should read this. It’s really good.’ It’s an important book to me.”
The title was part of the initial appeal, and that’s because, McIlroy admits, “Sometimes I care too much about too many things.” But there’s more to it than that.
In “The Subtle Art,” Manson writes about humankind’s misery amid a long list of advances (from the Internet to eradication of disease) that one might have thought would have made us happier. One culprit: the idea that we can have it all, and everyone can be a superstar.
The key to a good life, he writes, is caring about “only what is true and immediate and important,” and not getting caught in what philosopher Alan Watts called “the backwards law,” the trap of pursuing feeling better/richer/thinner only to reinforce a feeling of dissatisfaction.
“The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience,” Manson writes. “And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”
Perhaps this is what McIlroy was thinking of when he told Ewen Murray of The Guardian that the last step for him was mindset, i.e., “when you are in contention, not giving a s*&% if you win or not.” In other words, a sports psychologist might say, it’s important to just let it happen.
“He talks about how everyone wants to get smarter, more attractive, richer,” McIlroy says of Manson, “and they’re not going deep enough to ask, ‘Why do I want these things? What’s wrong with who I am right now?’ It’s people thinking that all these things will make them happier at the end of the day. With this book, it’s getting happiness from the simple things in life.
“For instance,” he adds, “I get to go grocery shopping on the Monday when I get home from a tournament, and that to me is fun. That’s very mundane for most people, but for me it’s a little perk for having a week off, going to Whole Foods and doing the grocery shopping.”
Some of the rules in the books McIlroy reads can be contradictory. While Holiday preaches stoicism, Manson points out in “Everything is F-----” that it’s impossible to completely remove emotion, lest one turn into a potato.
McIlroy may have been wrestling with this paradox last summer. Having decided to treat every round the same, he lost a head-to-head battle with then-No. 1 Brooks Koepka at the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. (Koepka shot 65 to win, McIlroy 71 to finish T4.)
When they met four weeks later in the final round of the TOUR Championship, McIlroy vowed not to treat the final round as just another day. He would give it special reverence. It worked out nicely as he shot 66 to win, while Koepka slumped to a 72 for a T3 finish.
The lesson: Emotion is bad, except when it’s good.
When it was over, McIlroy tried to accept his victory the way Holiday would, the way Marcus Aurelius would: without arrogance, just as he should let his setbacks go with indifference. Rory would still be just Rory to the organic apples and the rest of it at Whole Foods, and to his wife, and their library of books at home. All awaited his return as conquering hero or not.
For Rory McIlroy – golfer, reader, citizen of the world – it was on to the next chapter.
Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and golf.com joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.