A helicopter ride to a glamorous location is nothing new for Rory McIlroy. He has been the toast of the golfing world from tousle-haired teenager to seasoned, four-time Major winner. An uncanny ability to cleanly strike a small ball has afforded the 29-year-old a life of endless adulation and opportunity. And yet, no matter where on earth he has been, certain places can still take his breath away.
The Jungfraujoch is a vast, otherworldly glacier sitting almost 3,500m above sea level, nestled between two of the highest mountains in western Switzerland’s Bernese Alps. The grey day below is forgotten as the chopper bursts through the clouds and bright sunshine warms the mountain air. A huge plateau of permanently snow-covered rock stretches out before us for miles. All we can see on either side is gleaming snow or jagged mountaintops. The plateau has been kitted out by Omega for its Top of Europe golf challenge. This pits McIlroy, the long-time Omega ambassador, against a team of future golf stars, chosen from an earlier contest among Swiss youth teams.
They have built a vast teeing-off platform in the middle of the icy expanse and the competitors are invited to hit balls into big buckets 30 yards away, scoring anything up to 100 points per go, depending on which bucket the ball goes in, or nothing if they scuff it along the ground or send it skywards into the great white beyond. Three beaming teenage golfers take on the champ in a contest that is weighted heavily – and openly – in favour of the young challengers, who get three shots for each one of McIlroy’s.
As the Northern Irishman succumbs to a mathematically inevitable defeat, he good-naturedly congratulates the young winners, offering in faux-apology for losing that perhaps the glare could have put him off his stroke, saying that he has “played on greener greens.” McIlroy is relaxed and natural in front of a crowd, as expected given all the practice he has had. But watching how people react to him up here on this beautiful secluded spot, it strikes me as a strange existence, being constantly surrounded by fans staring at you through their smartphones, trying to capture a bit of you for later. Back down the mountain in Interlaken, away from the crowds, I sit down with McIIroy and ask him what it is like to be under constant digital scrutiny.
“I have seen the influence of social media growing, even in the ten years that I’ve been a professional,” he says. “Instagram and Twitter weren’t such a big thing before, but nowadays people seem to want to document every part of their lives, so when they go to events they’ve got their phones out and they’re trying to get your attention. It’s becoming more about them than the event.”
Does this bother him? “Sometimes, a few people take it too far. They want their 15 minutes so they’re recording themselves on Instagram, shouting stuff at you or whatever it is.”
At this point, he trails off. He sounds like he is close to complaining but stops himself. And this does not seem like media training, telling me what I want to hear. Seeing him over two days, at dinner, interacting with crowds, talking to both fans and fellow professionals, he just seems to have this constant soft, relaxed focus, whatever is thrown at him. This is perhaps what is needed to not get all panicky when swinging at that ball with all those people watching. Does he ever have moments when he wishes he could get his private life back?
“I’ve learned over the past few years that you have to try to keep some of yourself. You can’t just have every part of your life being out there and being picked apart. I think I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping my private life as private as possible, of separating my career from everything else that goes on in my life.”
McIlroy is accompanied on the trip by his wife, the incredibly poised and beautiful American former PGA employee Erica Stoll. They married last year, and I ask him whether this helps keep his crazy life in perspective.
“I think being married really helps me keep the balance right. Having great friends really makes a difference and my parents are still around. Having a great support group, people you can talk to — I think all of that helps. It makes you a more balanced person for sure.”
McIlroy reminds himself that although winning is important, that there are huge amounts of money involved and people take it incredibly seriously, it is only a game.
“You just have to make time for yourself. That part of my life is to me just as important as the stuff that people see in public – winning tournaments and breaking records and everything like that – but I don’t want what I do on a golf course to make me a happy or a sad person, because there are other things in my life that are great. If I didn’t have golf I’d be a happy person, I’d be fulfilled and I’d still live a great life.”
We are speaking shortly after Europe’s epic 2018 Ryder Cup victory. The event takes place every two years and has become known for noisy, partisan crowds getting behind their team as the best players from the US and Europe battle it out for continental honours. I ask if it would be possible to recreate these football-stadium levels of excitement in the more reserved, individual competitions.
“Ryder Cup wins are always different because you’re able to celebrate as part of a team. I’ve always said the proudest moments of my career have been my individual achievements, but the most fun I’ve had and the best experiences have been team events like the Ryder Cup. It’s the only real golf tournament when it’s the us-against-them mentality, that tribal, derby-match atmosphere. I’ve played in five Ryder Cups and we’ve been able to win four of them, which is pretty cool, and this last week was a special one for sure.”
Having suffered his share of injuries over the past couple of years, does the physical pressure of the game match up to the mental pressure, and does McIlroy see an increasing need to stay in shape in order to compete in the modern game?
“Golf has always been one of the longer careers in sport, but now with the global schedule you have to take care of yourself. All the stress you put on your body, not just the playing and practising and training but also the travel and the change in time zones as well. You have to eat the right way, get enough rest, exercise, you have to make sure that you’re ticking every box to help you perform the best you can. A few years ago, golf was pretty far behind in terms of nutrition, recovery and training, but I think it’s definitely caught up with other sports.”
He appears to genuinely cherish the Seamaster Professional Diver 300M that he wears for his mountain-top golf challenge and the Globemaster he is wearing for our interview. When he got involved with Omega years ago, was he just looking to expand his roster of sponsors, or was he already a proper watch guy?
“Yeah, I was. One of the first things I did when I turned pro and made a little bit of money was go and buy a watch. I’ve always been a watch guy and Omega has always been a massive presence in golf; they’ve sponsored some of the biggest tournaments in the world. I played the Omega European Masters back in 2008, one of my first real chances to win a professional golf tournament. I look at the other people that they have partnerships with, golfers like Sergio Garcia and Michelle Wie, but then also other people like Michael Phelps, George Clooney and Nicole Kidman — it seems like a really cool group of people they’ve aligned themselves with so I think it’s a great honour that they want to do the same with me.”
Has he had a chance to learn much about the watch business in his five years representing Omega? “I had a great visit to the factory last year, I got to see first-hand how much work goes into making a watch like this,” pointing to his Globemaster. “The strict guidelines that it has to pass are amazing. The attention to detail is incredible.”
With Omega’s extensive catalogue opened up, does he have any personal favourites? “Right now, I’m sporting a Globemaster, which I think is a nice complement to what I’m wearing. It’s a little smarter, a little more elegant, but I wear anything from the Planet Ocean to the Dark Side of the Moon. I try to mix it up a little depending on what I’m wearing and what the occasion is, and it’s a nice luxury to have.”
Feeling grateful for his good fortune is a constant theme. Having so much to feel thankful for, and having achieved such a lot already, does he see an age at which he might think he has done enough and call it a day? “I used to say that I would only play until I was 40 and that would be me, but I’m nearly 30 and I feel like I’ve definitely got more than ten years in me left. You see someone like Tiger Woods who’s about to turn 43 and he’s made this remarkable comeback after four back surgeries, so that’s a real inspiration.”
When McIlroy does eventually decide to retire from the professional game, would he want to stay involved with golf in some way? “I would really like to, particularly if that means helping to drive the game forward into the new era, making it more accessible for people. That is a big passion of mine, especially coming to countries like Switzerland, France and Italy, where golf is still seen as quite an elitist sport. I’d like to make it easier for more people to play golf.” Happy with what he has achieved, McIlroy still works hard to win more. Grateful for the opportunities he has had, he would like more people to get the same chances. McIlroy’s may be on the VIP helicopter tour, but his feet are firmly on the ground.