Rory McIlroy on history with Brooks Koepka, a trash-talking text and rivalries in golf
The finale to Rory McIlroy’s three-part feature in the Irish Independent was released on Sunday morning, and they saved the best for last.
The four-time major champion sat down with journalist Paul Kimmage at McIlroy’s home in Holywood, Northern Ireland, where “no question was off limits.”
Previous topics included McIlroy opening up about his personal life, his disappointing performance at last year’s British Open in Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush, and his new mental approach to golf and blocking out outside opinions.
The most-recent topics: Brooks Koepka and the Olympics.
Check out the highlights, with the full interview here.
Resetting after Portrush
McIlroy wrote 10 pages in his journal on the flight from the British Open back to Florida. From his journal:
“Sunday, July 21. So, major season over . . . Disappointed with my play considering how I played some of the regular tournaments . . . Definitely in my comfort zone at regular stops, need to create a similar feeling at the majors . . . Tried to treat every tournament the same this year, while it worked in some ways it didn’t help in others . . . I need to play as if there is no consequence . . . Eleven events remaining this year . . . Probably 18 to 20 before next year’s Masters . . . Set daily goals . . . Bring some more intensity . . . Win the FedEx Cup . . . Still in a great position heading into the play-offs . . . Improve my world ranking to 10-plus points . . . Keep reading . . . juggling . . . blah, blah, blah . . . Better diet – got lazy, not disciplined.”
McIlroy said his missed cut in his home country was seeing “the worst that can happen – falling flat on your face in front of your home people.”
He had been too tentative and careful, trying not to fail instead of succeed. “So that was the mindset: ‘I’m going to be aggressive. I’m going to go for things. I’m going to play my way.’”
Brooks and Rory: Memphis
At the 2019 WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, McIlroy was one shot clear of Koepka entering Sunday’s final round.
“So, I go out in the final round and my mindset was . . . It’s another round of golf . . . a great opportunity . . . I’m going to try to play well. And I was beaten on the day,” McIlroy remembered. “Obviously, Brooks played great and shot 65 but I think, more than anything, I was beaten by his intensity and his desire. I was too relaxed.”
Later on in the season, McIlroy learned of a text Koepka sent to his friends before the final round in Memphis: “I’m going to crush him.”
“Yeah, and f*** he sort of did,” said McIlroy. “Well, Brooks and I have always got on great – we do get on great – but he was obviously taking that mindset, ‘It’s me and him’. And I guess it was a good thing that he thinks highly of me, or not highly of me, if he was saying he was going to crush me.”
McIlroy wasn’t angry, he took it as a compliment that he was viewed as a threat by the then-world No. 1, adding “you’re never going to make it personal but there was a little, ‘Okay, if that’s the way you want to do it then I’ll play that game too.’”
Rory and Brooks, FedEx Cup Playoffs
McIlroy and Koepka were then paired together for the first two rounds of the the 2019 Northern Trust, with McIlroy beating Koepka by six shots in those two rounds. The text had nothing to do with his performance and didn’t change a thing for McIlroy.
“Why should it? Why would anything change? Because he told his friends, ‘I’m going to go out and destroy him.’ That’s just his competitive nature, so I don’t . . . maybe I’m too soft. It doesn’t matter to me,” McIlroy explained. “I learnt pretty early on in this career that you don’t take anything personal. And if you don’t take anything personal, you make your life a lot easier.”
McIlroy finished sixth at the Northern Trust and 19th at the BMW Championship. Koepka finished T-30 and 24th, respectively. The two were then off to Atlanta for the Tour Championship with $15 million, and bragging rights, on the line.
McIlroy was one shot off the lead going into the final round, playing with Koepka. His mantra that day came from a passage in a book about Alabama football coach Nick Saban: Focus on the process not the prize.
“I didn’t give a shit about the money. I swear to God, because I’d done it before, I’d earned it, and these boys hadn’t,” said McIlroy. “So they were thinking about it but I wasn’t. I was thinking about the year before with Tiger. I was thinking about the books I’ve read. It really wasn’t anything to do with the money for me, it was proving something to myself, and overcoming.”
McIlroy and Koepka didn’t talk much that day – he learned that lesson the previous year after losing to Tiger Woods in the final pairing on Sunday.
“I’m still saying, ‘good shot’ and doing all the things you would expect in a round of golf, but I didn’t engage with him, and he didn’t engage with me, and that’s what it needed to be,” said McIlroy. “And that’s what it needed to be in Memphis, but I’d learned.”
The best story McIlroy had that day was from the seventh hole. In 2018 he hit driver into the hazard and made double-bogey. What happened in 2019?
“Brooks takes a driver, pulls it left, loses a ball and makes double. I take a three-wood and make birdie, and go from one shot behind to two ahead,” recalled McIlroy. “I swung with so much freedom – especially after seeing what he’d done – and it was a big moment. It was actually the moment because it was a validation of everything I’d been working on.
“Atlanta was rewarding because of the final round in Memphis, and the fact that I’d made the FedEx Cup my goal when the Majors were done in Portrush,” said McIlroy. “It was massive for my career and for my confidence. I had gone out with the No. 1 player in the world and taken him down.”
Is there a Brooks-Rory rivalry?
To simply state McIlroy’s thoughts: Nope. And if that’s what you want, you’re watching the wrong sport.
“It happens in tennis . . . Federer, Djokovic, Rafa . . . they play each other so many times and that’s how rivalries are created. But the way the game of golf is structured doesn’t lend itself to that,” explained McIlroy, noting that Jack Nicklaus vs. Tom Watson and Nick Faldo vs. Greg Norman weren’t rivalries, but duels.
“Nicklaus and Watson in ’77, Norman and Faldo in ’96 – but one or two battles isn’t enough to call it a rivalry. I mean, you’ve put those names together but how many times did they go up against each other in a final round? It might happen in one of every 10 events.”
Rory roasts a media member
Kimmage highlighted this from a story written by Golf Magazine’s Alan Shipnuck on McIlroy downplaying the rivalry with Koepka: “I was deeply disappointed by Rory’s response. This was no time to be classy and diplomatic. Brooks challenged his manhood and McIlroy retreated.”
McIlroy, who called out Shipnuck at the final press conference of the 2018 Ryder Cup, responded by calling him a “gossip writer.”
“Seriously, what do you expect? ‘This was no time to be diplomatic and classy?’ When is there not a time to be diplomatic and classy?” asked McIlroy. “But I guess that’s just my thing. When they go low, you go high.”
McIlroy caught considerable shade from the media and fans when he didn’t participate in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He plans to play this summer in Japan, noting “an Olympic Games in Japan is a lot more appealing to me than the Olympic Games in Brazil. It’s a golfing nation. There’s a golfing culture. The atmosphere will be great.”
He then told a story of a text exchange with gold-medal winner Justin Rose, whom he congratulated after the event.
“I sent Justin Rose a text after he won, I think I still have the message: ‘I’m happy for you, mate. I saw how much it means to you. Congratulations.’ He said: ‘Thanks very much. All the boys here want to know do you feel like you missed out?’ I said: ‘Justin, if I had been on the podium (listening) to the Irish national anthem as that flag went up, or the British national anthem as that flag went up, I would have felt uncomfortable either way.’ I don’t know the words to either anthem; I don’t feel a connection to either flag; I don’t want it to be about flags; I’ve tried to stay away from that.”
For McIlroy, playing in the Olympics won’t be about national pride and patriotism. It’ll be about the experience.
“I’m going because I want to have a great experience. And that might sound selfish but that’s how I feel. I’m not going to be jumping around in a tricolour, I’m going to stay as neutral as possible because that’s the house, and place, I grew up in, and it’s always who I’ve been,” said McIlroy, who sees himself as a citizen of the world. “I’ve made my home in America; I grew up in Northern Ireland; I play for Ireland . . . it’s a complicated dynamic. And again, that might come across as flip-flopping, or soft, but I don’t give a shit.”
McIlroy’s favorite moment
Despite missing the cut, McIlroy picked Friday at last year’s Open as the moment of the year. He shot a 6-under 65 and missed the cut by one shot, but was praised by the his countrymen and patrons at Royal Portrush. McIlroy was widely regarded as the player of the decade, so, what was his moment of the decade?
“It was probably getting married. Of everything I’ve done in the last 10 years, that’s been the best,” answered McIlroy. “If it’s just golf, I’ll say winning the Open because I had my mum there (the only major she’s seen him win). So those two things, it all comes back to the females in my life. Yeah, jeeze, we got married in Ashford Castle and had such a good time. It was the best weekend ever. I even let Sergio wear his green jacket.”