Podcast No. 68: Rory McIlroy, World No. 1 Golfer

April 7, 2020

In what would have been Masters week, we are excited to share our sit down with the world’s top golfer, Rory McIlroy.

He joins me for a wide-ranging conversation about his career, what drives him, and how he believes WHOOP has improved his performance both on and off the course. Rory and I discuss:

  • How he knew from an early age that he was going to be a professional golfer.
  • His 2011 collapse at the Masters and how it made him a better player.
  • How the mental aspect of golf is just as important as the physical aspect and how WHOOP has helped him excel on the biggest stage.
  • What WHOOP has taught him about sleep and how it helps him prepare for each day.
  • His relationship with Justin Thomas, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, and some of the biggest athletes in the world.

We’re not sure when the world will return to a sense of normalcy, but whenever it does we can’t wait to watch Rory pursue a green jacket. Until then, stay healthy and stay in the green.

 

Rory McIlroy Talks Performance, Training & Sleep

World No. 1 golfer Rory McIlroy joins Will Ahmed on the WHOOP podcast to discuss his training, sleep and recovery.

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Rory McIlroy Podcast Show Notes:

 

1:16 - Do Not Enter. Will shares a story about the golf course where the podcast was recorded not letting Rory in because he didn’t have proper identification. “I, in the moment, thought that was the most ridiculous and hilarious thing that a golf course would somehow block the best golfer in the world from entering its premise because he had the wrong form of identification. ... Rory was totally down to earth about it, did not make a fuss, listened to the security guard, eventually turned around. It was a whole production just getting him in to doing this recording but Rory was a total class act about it.”

4:43 - A Lifelong Dream. “From the age of 6 or 7 years old I would tell everyone I was going to be the best golfer in the world. To be able to live that dream and get to this point is pretty cool.”

6:53 - Idolizing Tiger Woods. “Tiger was a huge hero of mine growing up and sometimes they say that you should never meet your heroes because you’ll be disappointed, but I’ve gotten to know Tiger a lot over the last few years and I haven’t been disappointed. He’s always been so good to me. He’s been really good with my parents, which is really cool. I think he valued his relationship with his parents so much and his dad, and I think he sees a sort of similar relationship that I have with [my parents].”

8:55 - Relationship with Parents. Rory’s father worked in bars and restaurants and his mother worked in a factory to support their son’s aspirations. “They were working so hard. My mum didn’t have to work night shifts, but she was working to make more money to help support me and my dream. It was always my dream. It was never theirs. I think that’s important. They encouraged me and they supported me but they never pushed me in a certain direction. Now, at 30 years old, I appreciate that because I know a little bit more about the world and I’ve seen what happens to these child prodigies that are great at something and their parents push them in a certain direction. They burn out by the time they’re in their mid-20’s. I really appreciated what my mum and dad did for me.”

12:45 - Golfing From Sunrise to Sunset. “When I was a kid, 15, 16, 17, there were days where I’d play 54 holes. I’d go around 3 times and hit balls. That’s one of the great things about Northern Ireland, where I grew up, in the summertime, when I was off school, it would get light at 6:30 or 6 or even earlier, but it wouldn’t get dark until 10 pm. So I had this huge window of time where I could play golf and just hang out at the golf club, and that was really important as well. That’s where I honed my skills but I also met my friends. It was a real hub of the town where I grew up. I played a lot, I practiced a lot, golf was what I did. It was my life. When I went to bed at night I was thinking about the next day going to the course.”

13:37 - Introducing Fitness. “I had back problems when I was 18 or 19. I had a herniated disk, L4-L5. I was told when I was 19 that if I didn’t sort this out, if I didn’t get stronger, if I wasn’t more diligent on the health side of things that my career could only last a handful of years. That’s when it really hit home to me. It is scary, especially as a golfer, you think your career is going to last forever, and it can if you stay healthy. ... 2010 was when I started [getting fit]. And then 2011, I won my first major then. I always correlated fitness and getting in shape and making my health a priority with playing my best golf and that’s why I’ve continued to do that since.”

15:38 - 2011 Masters Collapse. Rory discusses what went wrong during the final round of the 2011 Masters, when he entered Sunday with a 4-stroke lead. He shot an 8-over-par 80. “On the last day, I was trying to be someone else that I wasn’t. I was almost trying to be like Tiger Woods. I was trying to be hyper-focused, not look at anyone, not talk to anyone, real business-like. That’s never been me. I approach it a different way. I play my best when I’m a little more happy-go-lucky and relaxed and almost casual about it … but I thought to win the Masters, I need to be like Tiger. That was my mindset and that’s where it went wrong for me.”

21:45 - Recovering from Augusta. “I was motivated. I was like, ‘You know, what happened yesterday is not going to define me and that isn’t who I am as a golfer or a person. I’m going to take this experience and I’m going to use it to make me better.’ That’s what I tried to do.”

23:12 - Motivation. “Sometimes the fear of failure is a good thing. For me, it was I never want [the 2011 Masters] to happen again. I’ve always prided myself in learning from my mistakes and I made a lot of mistakes that day and that week. Maybe the next time you’re not going to do everything perfect but you’re going to be a little bit better. ... All I wanted was another opportunity. I wanted to get into the final group of a major again and I wanted to show myself and people that what they saw at the Masters wasn’t a true reflection of who I am.”

24:00 - 2011 U.S. Open. Rory’s first major victory came at the 2011 U.S. Open, just two months after collapsing at Augusta. “One of my favorite movies is The Dark Knight ... I watched that in the morning and it put me in a good place.”

26:19 - A Different Mindset. “I remember one of the things from that week at the U.S. Open, I watched my body language back from the Masters, especially on the Sunday when things started to go wrong. I became very closed off, looking at the ground, shoulders rolled in, and not creating this positive posture. So one of my big keys for the whole week at the U.S. Open, but especially the last round, no matter what happened, was to keep my eye line above the heads of the spectators.”

27:22 - Pre-Round Preparation & Importance of Rest. “One of the things I've learned from wearing WHOOP is that if I eat too close to bedtime I don't sleep well.” Rory details his post-round routine and shares why rest is so critical for him. “Everything is geared towards getting the best rest possible going into the next day. ... I think having that mindset that you’re always thinking about the next day and wanting a green recovery and wanting to sleep well, that’s important.” He's also a fan of cold showers and blue-light blocking glasses.

30:32 - Searching for an Edge and Discovering WHOOP. “Once I started to learn a little bit more about sympathetic and parasympathetic, the central nervous system, HRV, what all that means, I started wearing WHOOP because I just wanted to know more about my body and myself and how I recover. I just wanted to optimize what I do. In this day and age in golf, with the technology that’s out there, everyone is closer together. The difference between the No. 1 ranked player in the world and the No. 100 is actually pretty small. For me, I want to do everything I possibly can to get an advantage. For me, WHOOP is one of those things that can give me an advantage.”

31:58 - Popularity of WHOOP in the Golf World. “I was telling everyone that I could that this thing really helps and it’s really helped me,” Rory says of WHOOP. “You can’t watch a PGA or European Tour event nowadays without seeing a guy with a WHOOP on, which is awesome.”

34:06 - How WHOOP Changed His Training Methods. “I realized by wearing WHOOP that I was overtraining. I was completely over-trained, I was sleeping terribly. Okay, I looked good, but I wasn’t doing anything for my performance.”

34:49 - Sleep Data. Rory’s WHOOP data shows he averages almost 4 hours combined of REM and slow-wave (deep) sleep per night, helping him perform at his peak. “It’s the first thing I check in the morning,” Rory says.

37:20 - Green Recovery = Success. “Anytime that I have got a recovery in the green, I have performed well. There’s been times where I’ve had recoveries in the red and I have performed well also, but I feel like I’ve performed well in spite of my body instead of because of my body.”

38:13 - Winning the 2019 FedEx Cup. Rory had to play 31 holes on the final day of the tournament. “When I woke up that final round of the FedEx Cup knowing I had a long day ahead of me and I saw that I had 86% recovery, I was like, ‘I know I’m ready.’”

40:10 - Beating Brooks Koepka at the Tour Championship. “There was a lot riding on [the final day of the Fedex Cup], because two weeks prior in Memphis I played with Brooks Koepka in the final group, he was the No. 1 player in the world, and he dusted me. I played not very well but he played really good. It was an opportunity for me to not get him back, but at least put in a better performance than I put in that day, and I did. That was one of the most rewarding things, the fact that, again, I learned from some of my mistakes a couple weeks before and I was able to right those. I was better that day than I was two weeks earlier and that made a difference.”

40:56 - An Individual Sport. “Golf is you and the golf course. The only opponent you have is the golf course and yourself sometimes, because self-doubt creeps in or things get into your head. ... If you can focus on yourself 100% and get the best out of what you do, it doesn’t matter what anyone else does.”

44:42 - Trusting WHOOP. “When I wake up in the morning and I can see that [WHOOP says] keep your strain below a 12, I usually adhere to that. Even if you feel okay, your body is still recovering. It’s not in the right place.”

45:17 - Alcohol Consumption. “Before I wore WHOOP, I drank a lot more than I do now. There would be times at tournaments when I’d have a glass of red wine with dinner. Yes, that’s okay, but doing it too often leads to not great [recovery] scores and not great sleep. My alcohol consumption is way down from wearing WHOOP.”

46:24 - Resting Heart Rate and Alcohol. “I’ve looked at other people that wear WHOOP and my resting heart rate with alcohol is at least 10 beats faster, if not more. So I think it actually affects me more than other people.” Rory references "The Four-Day Hangover" and our podcast on alcohol's impact on sleep and recovery.

52:10 - Learning About Recovery and Sleep. “It’s becoming the norm. All of this recovery stuff is still in its infancy and there’s so much more we can learn about it. The fact that it has had this following and people are really latching on to this idea that during the night when we sleep, if we can optimize that, we’re going to perform better the next day. Who doesn’t like sleeping?”

53:08 - Preparing Mentally for Tournaments. “For me, what I’ve tried to do the last couple of years is think about, ‘Okay, how can I get myself into that mental place more often? And how can I put a structure around it where I actually have control of it?’ I felt like there were just some weeks I turned up where I felt good and I just played well and it was more by accident. For me, it’s about trying to put a structure around everything and learning from my habits. What enables me to do this well? When do I feel good?”

53:57 - Taking Challenges Head-On. “When I was younger I never liked embracing a challenge. I loved when it was easy and everything was going well, because who doesn’t? But I’ve really tried to embrace the times when it is a challenge and things aren’t going your way because that is ultimately what will make you better. ... I try to practice all the P’s: Patience, poise, perspective.”

55:50 - How His Caddie Helps Him Prepare. “I’ll have a bet with my caddie, Harry. One night that tournament week we always play for dinner. He’ll set me a target and say, ‘Okay, if you shoot 64 or better today, I’ll pay for dinner.’ It’s like a little mini pre-tournament before the tournament starts just to get me in that mode of going through my routine and doing the right things and just getting into that mindset.”

59:00 - Learning From Others. “I enjoy reading about people throughout history that have gone on to do great things. What can I learn from them? What can I apply to my own life? That’s the fun part of it. Just because I’m ranked the best at what I do, that doesn’t mean I can’t get better. The day that I stop trying to get better is the day that I’m going to hang the clubs up and do something else because I feel like that’s what’s led me to this point.”

1:00:00 - Pushing Back Against a Stigma. Rory says he’s bothered by the suggestion that natural talent has gotten him to where he is today. “It does bother me because I know how much work I’ve put in.”

1:00:54 - Outworking the Competition. “There’s two guys where I live [in Jupiter, Florida] that practice harder than anyone else. It’s myself and Justin Thomas. There’s no coincidence why we’re two of the best players in the world. I see how hard JT works and he sees how hard that I work. ... I have a lot respect for JT because I see how hard he works and I think he tries to put as much into his game as I do.”

1:02:17 - Developing a Relationship with Tom Brady. “He is the most competitive person I’ve ever met. It doesn’t matter whether he’s on the football field or whether he’s on the golf course, whatever he is doing, he is so competitive. It’s this drive, and this passion, and this fire to be the best at what he does. I love that about Tom and I think that’s why he’s had such a great career. He’s been someone that I’ve really looked up to. ... I hope when I’m his age I still have the passion for golf that he has for football because he is so into what he does.”

1:03:34 - The Importance of Accuracy. Rory and Will talk about the University of Arizona study that validated the WHOOP Strap's accuracy in tracking sleep. “Knowing that I wear something on my body that is the most accurate out there is really cool.”

1:04:34 - How WHOOP Has Helped Rory. “I’m living a healthier life because of it and I’m also performing better and my career’s become better because of it as well. I think other players in the golf world have seen that and have started to wear it and I think it’s just going to keep growing and growing. I think it’s awesome.”

 

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed (83 Articles)

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance. WHOOP today works with everyone from professional athletes to fitness enthusiasts to executives. Ahmed has raised nearly $100 million from top investors and has an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, and designers. He wrote “The Feedback Tool: Measuring Fitness, Intensity, and Recovery,” which sparked the underlying physiology and engineering for his work today. Ahmed was named a 2011 Harvard College Scholar for finishing in the top 10% of his class and a CSA Scholar Athlete; he captained the Harvard Men’s Varsity Squash Team. He was also recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal 40 Under 40.

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