Given he has still yet to don the green jacket that seemed as tailor-made for him as the Augusta course itself, the eve of another US Masters invariably prompts the memory of Rory McIlroy’s implosion there eight years ago.
But when you study how he has reflected on what his mindset was like back then and where he has it now, it’s worth bearing in mind that he was not the only prodigious superstar who choked — for there is no escaping the word, just as there shouldn’t necessarily be any shame in it either — on a huge sporting stage in the Deep South in 2011.
That same year, LeBron James, the self-anointed Chosen One, just as McIlroy was identified as god’s gift to golf while still in his teens, was humiliated in the NBA finals. After taking an early 2-1 series lead against the unfancied Dallas Mavericks, his Miami Heat self-destructed, losing three games in succession, and with it, the chance for James to win his first title.
James was a shell of himself in the second half of that series, the equivalent of McIlroy going for 80 on the last day of the Masters three months earlier. As he’d say himself, using words strikingly similar to how McIlroy described his Augusta nightmare: “I felt like the world had caved in.”
All season, James had been averaging 26.7 points per game, but for that series he’d drastically drop-off to average just 17.8 points. In the pivotal match of the series, Game Four, he managed just eight.
And in every fourth quarter, he seemed to disappear, scoring just 11 points in that period over the six games. The supposed best player of the world couldn’t even average or buy a bucket in the final quarter.
He and it became the biggest and most common joke in all of America. Don’t ask LeBron James for change of a dollar — he doesn’t have a fourth quarter.
“I heard it,” James would later say. “I heard them all.”
What was worse though was he had been listening to everything before and during the finals as well.
“At that point in time, I was still caring about what other people thought,” he’d say after getting back to a further seven finals, winning three. “But that moment shaped me for whom I am today.
“I left those finals like, ‘Yo, Bron, what the fuck was you on, man? You were overthinking everything.’”
The following season he took a different approach. On the eve of the play-offs, he switched off from all social media platforms, an activation trigger he’d come to term Zero Dark Thirty and a routine he’d repeat for every subsequent post-season.
Instead of reading Twitter, he chose to read books, on black history, The Hunger Games, even The Alchemist. To get out of his own head and into another world, one that didn’t revolve around LeBron James.
“During the post-season, everything is about the games,” he’d note. “Everything is about the match-up and the team that you’re playing. I needed some moments where I could just get a different perspective. Escape.”
Judging by his recent comments, most notably after his breakthrough win at The Players Championship, McIlroy has taken a leaf out of the same book, as in James’s, not necessarily Paulo Coelho’s.
Not so long ago he had alerts go off on his phone so he could read articles and clips posted about him. At last year’s Ryder Cup, he even responded to a heckler questioning his capacity to putt. He wouldn’t respond now and nor does he have the same notifications settings.
“I’ve been disciplined in not reading anything about myself, not watching anything about myself, sort of wrapping myself in my own little world.”
When he was having lunch on the Sunday at Sawgrass, he noticed the Golf Channel was on and asked one of the staff to mute it. “I just didn’t need to hear it,” he’d say. As LeBron once put it, “I don’t care about nonsense. I don’t need anything creeping into my mind for no reason that don’t need to be there.”
For James, he didn’t need to be reminded of how he had yet to win a championship and any claims that he didn’t possess a supposed ‘clutch gene’.
And for McIlroy, he didn’t need “the noise” of all his near misses at the start of the year, when he had failed to convert his remarkable consistency into an actual win.
Bob Rotella, who has met though not quite worked extensively with both James and McIlroy, would have approved of the shift in preparation. In one of his many books, How Champions Think, the widely-known sport psychologist opens with a conversation he had with James where they established that James would have to become a better three-pointer shooter to become a world champion and a genuine GOAT candidate. The cornerstone of his book, however, is the eternal wisdom of William — not LeBron — James: People tend to become what they think of themselves.
And, what Rotella has found is people tend to think what they hear most about themselves. And that self-image can be informed — and thus contaminated — by outside voices. So, if a McIlroy kept hearing about how poorly he’d converted his early-season form into actual tournaments, it might linger in his subconscious and he’ll duly play like someone conditioned to blow tournaments.
In more than one book Rotella has recounted the story of Jack Nicklaus speaking at a banquet in which he stated that he had never three-putted on the 72nd green of a tournament. Someone in the audience stood up. Sorry, but I can remember the PGA back in 197… Nicklaus cut him off. ‘Sir, you’re mistaken. I repeat, I have never three-putted or missed a putt inside three foot on the 72nd of a tournament...’
“That’s one reason why he was confident enough to win 18 majors,” Rotella would theorise. “He refused to feed his subconscious with a lot of thoughts about mistakes.”
If you make a mistake, learn from it, but don’t ingrain it or relive it, or else you’re just increasing the chances of repeating it.
After Nicklaus left that gathering, the man in the audience approached Rotella for verification but found little sympathy forthcoming. “Jack came here as the greatest player in history to share how he thinks, not to learn how you think,” Rotella told him. Nicklaus’s selective disciplined thinking might have been counter-intuitive to how the rest of society thinks and teaches, but then that’s part of what distinguished him from everyone else.
In the same book Rotella talks about how modest and personable he’s found McIlroy in company, but liked when he said he needed to be more confident and even cocky on the golf course — though just on the golf course.
Recently McIlroy has spoken about how he had to again emphasise that clear distinction: That he can’t let golf, especially a 75, define him or his self-worth or his mood. It’s something he credits a lot to his wife, Erica, while Paul McGinley has attributed his capacity to block out the critics and play with greater poise and patience to his recent work with Brad Faxon, a previous disciple and client of Rotella’s.
According to that school of thought, a recent win and showing like Sawgrass should carry far greater currency and weighting than his previous disappointments at Augusta. And that the fact he’s won three of the other four majors should be viewed as something to empower him this weekend rather than something to burden or cripple him.
Augusta with all its lurking ghosts will test all that. His current mindset doesn’t guarantee he’ll make a breakthrough at Augusta like the one he did in Sawgrass. But it sure increases the likelihood. And if he can maintain it, then one of these years he’ll be slipping into that green jacket that’s been made for him.