Rory's Good Reads
by Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.com / Images: Getty Images
Rory McIlroy at the 18th tee during the final
round of The Players Championship 2019
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 turning the pages.”
Yes, dear reader, the reigning FedExCup champion 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,” says McIlroy. “Maybe not as much self-help type things, whereas I definitely went down this path of how the mind works and how to approach things.”
Given the fact that he came off a season in which he won THE PLAYERS, the RBC Canadian Open, The TOUR Championship, 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.
Reading had steeled him. Avoid the big reaction. That’s one of the tenets of one of McIlroy’s favourite 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 great deal that can happen - stay patient, and show poise, and all the ‘p’ words that I like to use. All of that comes from reading plus 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.
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, and I’ve 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.”
At the Ryder Cup in France in 2018, McIlroy came upon another favourite 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 the 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 Number 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. And 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 that Holiday would, the way that 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.