Golf is a sport of numbers, some that matter, others which don’t.
Rory McIlroy started this week graded No. 1 on a glittering set of rankings, but the leaderboard he really wants to be sitting on top of is behind the 18th green at Bethpage Black in this year’s PGA Championship.
When The Sunday Times published its annual Rich List last weekend it was the Northern Irishman, one of only two non-soccer players in the top ten, who led the way with an estimated £138 million fortune in the ‘Richest Young Sportsmen’ category.
The newspaper reported that has had career earnings of £34.8 million on the PGA Tour, £30 million on the European Tour, that he signed a $100 million ten-year contract with Nike in 2017, a similar deal with TaylorMade and that other endorsements with Omega, Optum and NBC Sports take his annual income from that sphere to around £25 million.
These are all magical number for a young man. What’s more, they permitted the Rory McIlroy Foundation to donate more than £1.5 million to the Cancer Fund for Children and Sport Changes Life in 2018. Yet the digits which matter for him are not in the glossy pages of a weekend newspaper supplement.
McIlroy has won four major championships and he wants to win more of them. It is not the total in his bank account, but the total he amasses in the sport’s four most storied events which will determine his golfing legacy.
“Majors are ultimately what we’re going to be judged on,” he said ahead of the first round of this season’s second major and the brutal fact is that, unlike the cash flow, his tally in the greatest tournaments has hit a wall.
Earlier this month McIlroy turned 30 and yet it is very nearly exactly five years since he last claimed a major (August 2014).
It is a reality which both highlights his problem (it is an unusually prolonged drought for a golfer of his quality) and the enormity of what he has already achieved (claiming four majors by the age of 25 is something only very special golfers accomplish).
Asked about the fact that he is no longer the bookmaker’s favorite to win only revealed more numbers he has no interest in.
“I don’t think anything about the odds,” he said. “I think I have a good chance. I’ve had a pretty good record at the PGA, a couple of wins and a couple other decent finishes.”
The figures he is happy to focus on are those which normalize his quest.
“Honestly, I try to treat every tournament the same,” he said. “It’s 72 holes, it’s 18 holes a day. It is no different than any other golf tournament we’ve played.
“I’ve played hundreds of golf tournaments if not thousands of golf tournaments in my life, and I honestly just try to treat them all the same.”
In this regard, he is continuing with his current preferred method of seeking that fifth major. The buzzwords of his press conferences this season have been “patience” and “discipline”.
“I think I’ve found a formula that works for me,” he said ahead of last month’s Masters. “I’m going to persist with it and I’m going to stick with it. It’s helped me play some of the best golf of my career so far this year and hopefully that will continue.”
Alas, at Augusta National, it didn’t. He finished T21st and was not in contention at any stage during the week. It might be argued, perhaps by those he has been inspired by, that such a result only provides him with the opportunity to legitimize his approach.
‘The Obstacle is the Way’ by Ryan Holiday is a book that has gained popularity among sportsmen and women, McIlroy among them, preaching that adversity can be turned into an advantage.
Inspired by the ancient Greek school of stoicism, it teaches that problems should be faced with composure rather than destructive emotion.
The Greeks were not only strong on ideas and thoughts, but also with numbers.
At Augusta National McIlroy married the two when saying: “It’s not just about one week. This is a lifelong journey of trying to improve and learn and try to master my craft. That’s what I’ve chosen as what I want to do with my life. That’s a lifelong pursuit. It’s not just one week a year.”
This Thursday nothing changes. There is another chance (to finish the week number one and to gain major number five), but the philosophical McIlroy will be treating it like any other.