Feinstein: McIlroy Never Quit

After a disastrous first round at Royal Portrush, Rory McIlroy didn't give up – and for that, he is worthy of praise, John Feinstein says

John Feinstein
July 22, 2019 - 2:42 pm
Rory McIlroy Open Championship

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Last Friday afternoon, I sat transfixed and watched Rory McIlroy try to somehow make the cut at the British Open. I knew that even if he made the cut, McIroy would have no chance to win on the weekend—he would be too far behind and trail too many players.
            
But I knew this was about more than that. This year’s Open was played at Royal Portrush, a spectacular links course in Northern Ireland that hadn’t hosted the world’s oldest golf championship since 1951—in large part because of “The Troubles” that plagued the country for so many years.
 
Past PGA Championship winner Steve Elkington probably said it best on Friday morning when asked in a radio interview why it had taken so many years for the Open to return to Royal Portrush: “Might have had something to do with all those bombs going off, mate.”
            
The bombs have stopped and it’s likely the event will return to Portrush early and often. The golf course got rave reviews from everyone last week; the setting was spectacular; the fans joyous and clearly thrilled—especially when Irishman Shane Lowry walked off with the Claret Jug, lapping the field en route to a six-shot victory.
            
Lowry became the fifth Irishman to win a major dating to 2007: Padraig Harrington has won three; McIlroy, four; and Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell one apiece. That’s 10 majors, not to mention David Feherty, who is a force in the sport in a completely different way—although he was once a fine player himself.
            
Lowry and Harrington are from the Republic of Ireland; McIlroy, Clarke, McDowell and Feherty from Northern Ireland. Once, the distinction would have been important. Now, 21 years after the “Good Friday Agreement,” which brought about the beginning of the end of “The Troubles,” was signed, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is largely symbolic and the Irish view anyone from Ireland as one of their own.
            
McIlroy grew up in Holywood—about 65 miles from Royal Portrush—and broke the course record there when he shot 61 as a 16-year-old. The Open coming to Portrush was a huge thing for him—as for all the Irishmen—and he had been looking forward to the week since it was first announced that the Open was going to finally return there.
            
“It’s going to be a great week,” he said one night last fall when I had dinner with him and with Feherty. “Win or lose, I’m going to love everything about it, I know that.” He grinned. “Of course to win it…”
            
Would have arguably been the greatest moment of McIroy’s career. Except there are times in every athlete’s career when they want something too much. That’s where the old saying, “try easier,” comes from.
            
McIlroy was clearly squeezing his clubs much too tight on Thursday morning when he hit his opening tee shot out-of-bounds—with an iron—and began his week with a quadruple-bogey eight. In 12 years as a professional, it was McIlroy’s fourth quadruple-bogey. He’s never made worse than that on a single hole.
            
He fought back in the middle of the round, getting to three-over-par, but missed a tiny putt on the 17th hole and then, clearly discouraged, triple-bogeyed the 18th for an eight-over-par 79. At day’s end, he was tied for 150th place—meaning he was ahead of five players.
            
If it wasn’t the worst round of his career, it was the most embarrassing.
            
Which is why what he did on Friday was so remarkable. Playing late in the day, he knew he needed to—as the players say—go deep, to have any chance of making the cut.
            
He almost pulled it off. He got to six-under-par for the day through 14 holes, then made a bogey. He followed with a birdie and knew he needed one more birdie to survive. By then, it felt as if the entire country was trying to will him to the finish line. He had a makeable birdie putt on 17—but missed. At 18, with the hole located near a ridge, he fired his second shot at the flag and missed his target by about a foot. The ball rolled off the green, and his desperate attempt to pitch-in missed by about two feet. He tapped in for a 65 with everyone screaming his name, thanking him for the effort—for not giving up when most might have just mailed it in that day.
            
McIlroy clapped for the crowd, walked off with tears in his eyes and then said it was one of the most gratifying and disappointing moments of his career. I was a little choked up myself.
            
The next day I tweeted about the drama, the electricity, the near-miss and the emotion of it all.
            
Most people agreed with me. But—as always—there had to be a nay-sayer. (I honestly believe that if you tweet that Michael Phelps was a great swimmer, someone would tweet back, "What about those two races he lost in London?”)

“He missed the cut, didn’t play the weekend, that’s the bottom line,” came the tweet. “Why get so excited about a guy missing the cut?”
            
I’ll admit when I get tweets that I either don’t understand or make me angry, I’ll check the profile. I was surprised that the guy was some kind of teaching pro—someone who should, I figured, understand golf.
            
I try to engage with tweeters, unless they’re profane, just really dumb or rabid Trump supporters. Waste of time. But when someone disagrees with me in a civil way, I’ll explain my position.
            
I did that. I talked about how easy it would have been to give up; the drama of the day because of WHERE the championship was being played. The guy always had an answer: a great player wouldn’t have shot 79; he had chances on the back nine and didn’t cash in. On and on.

Finally, I figured out the problem. There’s an old saying about things that take special talent, whether it’s playing golf or the piano or, for that matter, writing. “Teachers teach because they can’t do.”
      
Teaching is a skill unto itself, totally separate from COMPETING. Editing is a skill totally different from WRITING. Competitors think differently than teachers. Coaching is different than teaching because you must be a competitor to coach successfully.
      
Years ago, Gary Williams, the Hall-of-Fame coach, who is a good friend, and I were talking about a swim meet I’d just taken part in. I was talking about how nervous I’d been before swimming the 100 butterfly in the Masters national championships. The night before the meet began, one of my teammates, Wally Dicks had said: “Why do we do this to ourselves?” referring to the nerves we all felt.
            
Unlike me, Wally wasn’t just an okay Masters swimmer. He held all sorts of world records in the breaststroke and had just become—at 38—the oldest man to ever qualify for the Olympic trials.
            
I’d managed to swim well in the 100 fly and was telling Gary how relieved I was that all the work I’d put in to preparing for the meet had paid off.
            
Gary then paid me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten—and it had nothing to do with my writing. “You see, you’re good at what you do because you understand competitors,” he said. “You never swam in the Olympics, but you understand what it means to compete. You’ve felt it. You get it.”
            
Bob DeStefano, the golf pro who taught me to play the game, was one of the best teachers of anything I’ve ever met. And yet, he once said to me, “If I had your competitive drive, I’d have played on the tour.”
            
And if I had Bob’s talent, maybe I’D have played the tour. The stars are those who have both. I was competitive, but not talented enough.
            
Being a competitor is something you either have or you don’t have. The very best players, in any sport, tend to be manically competitive. There are some guys who are competitive—but probably don’t live up to their potential because they don’t burn to win.
            
I know how much McIlroy burns to win and I know how much he’ll brood about what happened Thursday, just as he’ll lose sleep about not having yet won the Masters until he wins one.
            
I couldn’t understand why the “Yeah, but he missed the cut anyway” tweeter simply didn’t get that there was more to McIlroy’s Friday than coming up one shot short of his goal.
            
It was about competing until they won’t let you compete anymore. It was about not ever giving up because it’s simply not in your DNA to give up.

I’ve often said that, lost amidst all of Tiger Woods’ amazing accomplishments, is the most admirable round of golf I believe he’s ever played. It came in 2002 at Muirfield. He had started the year by winning both the Masters and the U.S. Open and very much wanted to add a calendar Grand Slam to the Tiger Slam he’d won in 2000 and 2001. He was in contention for two rounds at Muirfield before, playing in a virtual hurricane, he shot 81 in the third round, meaning he had absolutely no chance to win going into Sunday.
            
He shot 65—which moved him up to a tie for 28th place. I’m certain the thought of giving up or mailing it in never crossed his mind. The same was true for McIlroy this past Friday.
            
A competitor would never think of quitting. A non-competitor, in this case a teacher who clearly was never a real competitor, couldn’t possibly understand.
            
His loss.
 

John Feinstein’s most recent book is “The Prodigy,” the story of a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters who has to fight off agents, equipment reps and his own father, who are trying to turn him into a human ATM machine. His next Young Adult novel, “Benchwarmers,” debuts in late August. His latest non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside the Most Important Position in Professional Sports,” will be published in paperback in September. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com