Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy aren’t ones to hide their emotions. Whether on the course or in post-round interviews, they are open books when it comes to their feelings. It is that openness that has made them fan favorites, even during their recent struggles. This week, for the first time since October 2018, McIlroy and Spieth are both in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking. But as they try to carry their good form into the summer of 2022, their attitudes couldn’t be more different.
Let’s start with Spieth. It wasn’t pretty, but he did win the RBC Heritage last weekend. He struck the ball beautifully yet turned in a putting performance that had viewers hiding their eyes whenever caddie Michael Greller reached for the flatstick. While Spieth topped the field in tee-to-green stats, he lost more than two strokes on the greens. Overall, he gained a per-round average of 2.9 shots on the field at Harbour Town, a number that earns victory on the PGA Tour only about five percent of the time. But partly because other contenders failed to capitalize down the stretch, and partly because Patrick Cantlay’s approach found a fried egg lie on the first playoff hole, Spieth was able to close out his 13th career PGA Tour win.
He was self-aware in his post-round press conference: “[Sometimes] you have [an event] where you feel like you played good but not good enough to win, and I honestly felt like this was that week.” Spieth was then asked if he felt like he was close to getting back to the peak of his abilities. “Close but far,” he replied. “I would say tee to green, if you take my last three events, it’s as good as it’s ever been.” But he quickly acknowledged that he needed to “[get] back to being dialed in with my [putting] stroke.” Although there’s a touch of hyperbole in his assessment of his tee-to-green game, his response generally demonstrates the honesty of his mental approach. He’s both confident in his ball-striking but cognizant of the fact that it looks like he’s putting with a pool noodle. And he isn’t trying to convince us otherwise.
A little less than a year ago, Rory McIlroy found himself sitting in a similar press conference. He had just won the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, which was a bit of a shock. He had entered the week on a run of poor form and seemed lukewarm about professional golf altogether. While he had racked up several top 10s in 2020 and early 2021, he had missed the cut at both the Players and the Masters, continuing his habit of falling short when he cared the most.
“Since coming back [from the pandemic stoppage],” he said after the Wells Fargo win, “I didn’t have my best stuff and I needed to change some things. I’ve been seeing zero progress over the last few weeks, and all of a sudden this pops up out of the blue. But that’s golf. It’s a funny game at times.” When asked what the victory meant for him, McIlroy took the bait: “This is the first tournament I’ve won three times, and hopefully [I’m] going to go to the PGA [Championship] and win that for a third time as well.”
Whether or not he truly felt like he had found something in his game, Rory was clearly trying to plant a seed of confidence within himself: if I can win the Wells Fargo three times, why not the PGA? It was a mind game, essentially. Even if the connection between the two tournaments was dubious, he was going to think and say whatever would allow him to play better.
Two weeks later, at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, where he had won by eight shots in 2012, McIlroy finished T-49. He was five shots back after 36 holes and 11 behind Phil Mickelson after 72.
So Rory’s psychological gymnastics didn’t work that time, but two weeks ago, after a final-round 64 and a runner-up finish at the Masters, he went back to the same well. “I don’t think I’ve ever walked away from a tournament as happy as I am today,” he said. “It gives me confidence going forward not only into the next Masters next year but to the rest of the season as well.”
The contrast between McIlroy’s mindset and Spieth’s makes for an interesting case study in how different golfers attempt to get themselves back on track. Some might pursue a certain mental state through subtle adjustments in emotion and confidence; others might simply be as honest and realistic as possible about their weaknesses and commit to the physical grind.
Right now, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth are trying to chart their own, peculiar ways back to the top. With any luck, they’ll both get there.