Image: Sky Sports Golf
When club professional Michael Block was told he was going to be paired with Rory McIlroy last Sunday at the 2023 PGA Tour Championship, Block’s reaction was, “Are you serious? Wow. That should be fun. We’re going to have a good time.” He could not have imagined how good it was going to be.
No stranger to Majors
Block, a 46-year-old teaching pro at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club, had earned his invitation to this Major through PGA sectional qualifying rounds as one of the top 20 PGA club professionals in the USA.
Block is no stranger to this Major. He’s achieved Southern California PGA Player of the Year from 2013 to 2022, only missing out in 2017, 20 PGA Tour events, twice played at the US Open, and three prior visits to PGA Championships. He really loves golf and he’s very good at it.
Image: Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club
A dream pairing
After three rounds Block was tied 8th on even par and set for a final round tee time with Rory McIlroy, 7th at 1 under. Block was clearly trending upward and delighted to be living his dream. He had already made a huge impression and was becoming the inspirational hero of the thousands of fans at Oak Hill with his carefree, happy approach to pro tour golf.
McIlroy, on the other hand, was coming back from a major disappointment. He was entitled to have some great expectations. He had closed out a stellar 21-22 season by winning the Tour Championship, 3 wins, a runner-up, 10 top-ten finishes and only 2 missed cuts out of 16 events played. But rivals were circling. Scottie Scheffler’s record was better with 4 wins, 4 runner-up and 11 top-tens.
Roller coaster season
Rory’s 22-23 season started with an immediate win at the CJ Cup on October. That must have been the dream start he had hoped for. And then the season became a stomach churning roller coaster: T32, T29, runner-up at the Arnold Palmer and then a missed cut at the Players Championship.
He bounced back finishing 3rd at the Dell Matchplay only to miss the cut at the one Major he so badly wanted to win – The Masters. That hurt. The pain was obvious. Rory took a break and then reached T47 at Wells Fargo Championship. And all the while Scottie Scheffler was still winning, John Rahm turned on a massive winning streak, and McIlroy felt himself accelerating down the rankings. This was not the game plan for the year.
It was obvious from his TV interview demeanour that Rory was not living up to his personal standards of elite play and consistency. He was falling short of his dreams and taking longer to reach the level he had worked for and expected. He didn’t look happy at all.
The D word
In our own small worlds of golf, we’ve all experienced disappointment. Whether it’s the Saturday medal or club open or even a ‘friendly match’ against our friends, if you love golf, you want to hit memorable great shots, play well, and you love to win. But inevitable disappointment is the outcome when you know you can play better than you did. Maybe next time.
“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” – Nelson Mandela
It must be infinitely harder to manage mentally and understand when you have so much raw talent as Rory McIlroy.
Weight of expectations
The pressure to win is not just self-inflicted for the top pros, it piles on from all directions, especially from the fans and followers and then amplified by the press and social media into adoration when you’re winning, and critique when you don’t.
In Rory’s case, the mental pressure just grows as Tiger plays less golf and the golfing world, including the PGA, PGA Tour and sponsors, all look for the next superhero to admire, one that everyone will want to watch on TV and YouTube to grow audiences and advertising revenues.
McIlroy has recently endured a few tough years with workload, distractions, and golf politics. Not only is he working hard to be the world’s top player and elite golf athlete, a full-time devotion in itself, he has many other day jobs to do for sponsors and the PGA Tour. So what? Don’t other pros have multiple priorities and distractions? Yes, but it’s all about the scale.
Too many jobs spoil the score
Perhaps the most stressful job for Rory might have been advocating for the PGA Tour in their PR battles with LIV Golf, and in negotiating change with the PGA Tour on behalf of tour pros. His roles as a past chairman of the Player Advisory Council and a player director on the PGA Tour policy board have taken up precious time. Media work is stressful and social media can be brutal. It’s hard to concentrate on your core goals with this scale and span of responsibility. And when you lose focus, it impacts results and confidence.
“Confidence in golf is being able to concentrate on the problem at hand with no outside interference.” – Tom Watson
Out of focus
The reasons why many of us don’t get to practice and play golf as much we want to are usually down to work and family commitments, distractions and a lack of focus. It was clear Rory needed to clear his work schedule, clear his mind, and get back to Job number one – working towards his career goals, winning tournaments, winning majors and finally winning The Masters.
So when Rory shook hands with Michael Block on the first tee on Sunday at Oak Hill, we saw the coming together of two contrasting approaches to pro golf in a pairing that was going to get everyone’s attention. And it did.
A carefree, happy, golf loving Michael Block was playing with one of his heroes. Rory was giving ‘carefree golf’ a chance, playing alongside Block as a living, breathing example of what a positive mental attitude could achieve. And the pairing appeared to be helping them both.
Image: Sky Sports Golf
Block’s hole-in-one on the 15th couldn’t have been timed or scripted any better. I don’t think Rory had smiled so much for quite some time when he hugged and congratulated a disbelieving Block after his ball vanished down the hole without a bounce. The joy of golf was back, at least for a while for McIlroy, and got dialled up to 11 for Block.
And the winner is . . .
And while an amazing and resurgent Brooks Keopka won the day, my winners were Block and McIlroy. I think they both learned a little from each other during their time together which will help drive future enjoyment and continued success for them both. Even though they express it differently, Block with a calm smile and Rory with serious ambition, they both love golf. That’s what matters if you want to win.
Play well. Have fun.
Paul Hart is a co-inventor of the PuttBANDIT ball marker and an enthusiastic golf improver.
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