Sobel: McIlroy’s Commitment to the Process Earns Him Golf’s Biggest Prize

Credit:

Butch Dill, USA Today Sports. Pictured: Rory McIlroy

Aug 26, 2019, 08:56 PM EDT
  • Rory McIlroy took home the richest purse in golf history with his win at the 2019 Tour Championship.
  • Jason Sobel details how Rory's commitment to the process helped him take home his second FedEx Cup.

ATLANTA – Here’s the situation: You, a recreational hack golfer whose individual statistics include 9.3% greens in regulation and 4.7 adult beverages consumed per round, are standing on the tee of a daunting par-5 finishing hole. Well, daunting for a guy who’s half-drunk and can’t hit a green. You’ll have to successfully navigate a well-placed pond and putt a green slicker than your driveway. If you can do it, though, if you can just make better than triple-bogey with, oh, maybe 10,000 fans screaming your names from all directions, you’ll be $15 million richer.

Think you can handle that action?

Unfortunately – for us, not you, because watching the sweat drip off your brow during that impending train wreck would be absolute must-see reality TV – this situation wasn’t offered to just any ol’ hack.

It was the late-afternoon scenario for Rory McIlroy at East Lake Golf Club, as he tried to claim the richest purse in golf history.

And yes – spoiler alert – he was able to make better than triple-bogey.

With a birdie on the final hole, McIlroy won the FedEx Cup finale by four strokes, in one weekend cashing $5.7 million more than Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player during their entire careers — combined.

Even though it was hardly the stuff of butterflies at the end, I asked Rory how he’s able to compartmentalize each shot, as opposed to thinking about the overall big picture – and what advice he’d give to you – the hacker – in a similar-yet-less-expensive kind of moment.

As it turns out, this has been a main theme for him this year.

“What I kept telling myself today was focus on the process, not the prize,” he explained. “Whether you’re playing for five bucks or 15 million or whatever it is, focus on what can you do right now that’s going to help you get toward your goal. You know, it takes a lot of mental energy to do that because it’s very easy for your mind to wander, and it wants to wander and it wants to look ahead. But you have to be so concentrated on what am I doing and the here and the now that is going to help me get closer to that goal. And that’s what I’ve tried to do all year. I really stuck to that today.”

It’s a strategy from which we could all learn, one which transcends golf.

Too often, we’re focused on that prize, as McIlroy said, not the process – a mental Catch-22, of course, because the entire reason for sticking with that process is to claim the prize.

For him, though, this is more than just guru regurgitation.

Throughout this year, we’ve heard Zen Rory speak about the journey, not the destination; the performance, not the result; and yes, the process, not the prize.

“Some of the work that I’ve put in on the mental side of the game and some of the things I’ve been doing, I definitely think you’re starting to see the fruition of that,” he said. “Just a different approach, a little bit of a different attitude. I think I played 19 times on the PGA Tour this year, 14 top-10s, three wins, I don’t know how many final groups. So just that attitude and that consistency day in, day out, I think that’s what you’ve seen over the course of this year, and hopefully will continue to see going forward.”

There it is again. The focus on the mental aspect, which is an important spotlight when the physical and technical parts of your game are perhaps the best in the world.

Earlier this week, McIlroy was asked about the $15 million prize and whether that would motivate him to play his best golf.

His response was equal parts eloquent and profound.

“The money’s nice,” he offered. “It’s wonderful. … I’m not saying that money is a bad thing. It motivates a lot of people, but I think for me and my competitive spirit, I want to win the FedEx Cup for a lot of different reasons. Is money one of them? Yeah. Look, it would be nice to win on Sunday and be, oh, I’m $15 million richer, whatever it is. But at the same time, I’ll get more satisfaction from winning the golf tournament and playing well.”

Money matters, but it doesn’t matter more than the experience of success. If you’re focusing on the money, you’re doing it wrong.

He wasn’t speaking directly to a recreational hacker trying to win a bet while standing on the final tee, but he could’ve been.

It would’ve been fun to watch your hands trembling on the grip of a driver, figuring out how to make double-bogey when your blood-alcohol content is a higher number than your birdie average.

It was more fun, though, to watch McIlroy – all process, no prize – make a casual birdie and claim his due riches.

In the end, he won the biggest check in golf history by never thinking about it at all.

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