HOYLAKE, England – Those two trigger words that Rory McIlroy kept close to the vest this week at the Open?
“Very simple,” he said Sunday night, with a sheepish grin. “It’s going to be a big letdown for everyone.”
Pretty much, since most everyone assumed it was something technical (“left shoulder down through impact”), motivational (“claret jug”) or maybe even vengeful (a shot back at Caroline!).
Nonetheless, we’ll let McIlroy explain why those trigger words worked so well during his 17-under 271 and two-shot victory at Royal Liverpool:
“With my long shots I just wanted to stick to my process and stick to making good decisions, making good swings,” he said.
“And ‘spot’ was for my putting. I was just picking a spot on the green and then trying to roll it over my spot every time. I wasn’t thinking about holing it. I wasn’t thinking about what it would mean or how many further clear it would get me. I just wanted to roll that ball over that spot.”
With two words Rory McIlroy has told the world how to play golf. The words around the quotes also show me what the world thinks of golf and the two views are so opposed to each other that it is startling.
Let me start with “trigger words”. In the real world of great athletics the realm of brain silence reigns supreme. All great athletic performance come from a mind that is quiet, serene, and working in the most sublime and abstract way. My friend Steven Yellin would call those “quiet cues”, just a little nudge to activate the motor system and the cerebellum to do their things. Cues can be almost anything if done correctly and by all accounts Rory’s were magnificent.
Process! Yes process is one of those things that gets talked about but seems to be relatively rarely taught or coached to players. Most players are drilled with golf swing and technical excellence. Most instruction is about how to swing the club in minute detail. Where Rory is leading us is how to take in the information, come to a decision, and play with freedom. My friends Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson do almost nothing but coach their players how to think, decide, and then play. Process is not a pre-shot routine. It is not laser the flag and then pick the club. It is not a series of swing thoughts. It is much more than these and yet so very bland that Rory gave a “sheepish grin” in his explanation.
The writer assumed Rory was going to give us the secret to golf with some superior swing idea. Nope. Sports psychology would love it if motivation was the key as would a whole bunch of speakers but that is not it either. The movies would love to have a vengeful and spiteful Rory and a wicked Caroline win because of hate. That is not even close. By the sheepish grin Rory knows what really happened and that the world just would not believe him if he could explain it.
When Rory says, “making good swings” he is telling us he never even thought about the swing. There was no exactness. There was no pinpoint control. There were no rules by which to swing. Rory has trained to do this and he knows it. That is why we train so that we do not have to manipulate in the round. My observation is hundreds if not thousands of young men have trained to do this, but why Rory? It is because he has buried the goal of making a great swing so deep it is of no concern. Is it possible then to train a young man to ignore his swing so much that great golf happens? I say yes. So does my friend Shelly Liddick at Bellevue University in Omaha.
“Making good decisions” is almost code for “I was playing the course as I found it” and “I could care less about the outcome”. If you watched the telecast Rory hit plenty of shots that missed the target. If you have played links golf you also know that no outcome is assured until a ball stops rolling. If you put all that together what you will find is that shot after shot Rory looked as if he had zero intensity of concern for any outcome. He made his calculation, made his decision, made his swing, and that was it. He looked like it was a walk in the park. He buried the goal of hitting this fairway, or that green so deep that even his misses had elegance to them, a fluidity of motion so pure is rises to a magical standard. It is not magic. It is neuroscience and there coaches who know how to teach this.
Rory’s quote, “I wasn’t thinking about holing it” it pretty amazing in itself. I have seen hundreds of college golfers crucify themselves when a 12 foot putt misses. Why? Here is Rory McIlroy filling the bucket in a major championship and he admits to not even trying to make it. How does that happen? If you watch the tape if the putt doesn’t go into the hole is stops right next to it. Rory’s touch was superb almost as if it was on purpose. My friend Geoff Mangum is all about this as he teaches one golfer after another how to develop good touch. Rory looked content to roll the ball into the general vicinity and if it went in that’s OK too.
I find the idea of “spot” intriguing because it is not “line”. Again if you have played links golf many putts are so indistinct that if you try to find an exact line you will drive yourself crazy. A spot can be an inch or a foot in diameter. It can be right in front of you or twenty feet away. Again by observation of the telecast it looked to me as if Rory trusted an instinct over the ball rather than some pre-formed line. He gave himself and his talent the freedom to make the micro adjustments needed to putt well. As a result Rory shot 17 under par and had an amazing putting performance.
Rory McIlroy has shown us the way three times on the biggest stage and it has not been close: Congressional, Kiawah, and now Hoylake. He has this quote, “I wasn’t thinking about what it would mean…” How does a player in the British Open not think about what it means? Or maybe more to the point if Rory is separated from the meaning of the outcome by this large a chasm can we coach our students to do the same? Can we coach parents to ease up a bit and let her play? If Rory on Hoylake is not considering the outcome, has no intensity of anticipation of future events, should that not be as important in coaching as a full shoulder turn? I certainly think so.
In the world of golf coaching there are people who know what is really going on. Steven Yellin, Geoff Mangum, Shelly Liddick, Lynn Marriott, Pia Nilsson come to my mind and I consider them friends. I am also certain Butch Harmon knows the real deal but I don’t know Butch. Rory is showing us the way. If I asked him my bet is he’d say “join me” rather than “follow me”. There are others as well, but here is final idea. No matter where you are you can learn to be quiet and be great up to your best. Ask one of the afore mentioned coaches or me. I’ll be glad to join you on the journey.
David Ogrin, July 20, 2014