U.S. Open: Rory McIlroy gives up his pursuit of numbers

PINEHURST, N.C. — Numbers define golf. The number of strokes you make on a hole, the number of a cut line, the winning number of a tournament, the number of tournaments you stack on top of the other. Get enough low numbers at the right times and, magically, you end up with high numbers — paycheck numbers, “majors-won” numbers, numbers that form the trajectory of a career.

Numbers don’t define life. There’s no metric for satisfaction, no scale to measure happiness. You can shoot low numbers on the course all day long, and when you’re done, you’re still the same person you were walking up to the first tee. Tournaments, majors, paychecks … they make life more comfortable, but they aren’t enough on their own.

By the numbers, Rory McIlroy has had a Hall of Fame career. He’s won more majors than all but 20 men in history. He’s won 26 times on the PGA Tour, more than all but 21 men in history. He’s earned, as of last week, $87,808,223 on the PGA Tour, more than anyone but Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. He’s spent 122 weeks — well over two full years — as the No. 1 golfer on the planet. Those are, by any estimation, good numbers.

Also by the numbers, Rory McIlroy is in the midst of a profound struggle. When he tees off on Thursday, McIlroy will be 3,596 days — nine years, 10 months, four days — removed from that last major win. And for all those other numbers that swirl around him, it's four — the number of majors he's won — that has haunted him for a decade.

At last year’s U.S. Open, McIlroy finished in the No. 2 spot (a wicked number for golf), just one stroke (an even more wicked number) behind winner Wyndham Clark. That marked the 10th time he’s finished in the top 5 since his last major victory in 2014, the 20th time he’s finished in the top 10.

Ten years. Almost 40 majors. Every single one, facing the same questions: Is this the week you're going to do it, Rory? Is this the week you break the streak? Is this the week it all comes together? Imagine having your failures held up in your face, year after year, and it's a wonder McIlroy hasn't just pitched his clubs into the Irish Sea.

“I'm really proud of my body of work over the past 15 years and everything that I have achieved, whether it be season-long titles or individual tournaments or majors,” McIlroy said Tuesday. “Obviously getting my hands on a fifth major has taken quite a while, but I'm more confident than ever that I'm right there, that I'm as close as I've ever been.”

If your first reaction to that quote is, Hasn't he said he's close as he's ever been before, like, every single major? — well, to use numbers again, 1. Yes and 2. Focusing on that is part of the problem. It's about more than numbers with McIlroy, and naturally, he didn't leave it there.

“I want to win as many golf tournaments as I can. I want to try to compete and win as many majors as I can,” he said. “I think the only thing about trying to pick a number is that you're setting yourself up for failure or disappointment. Tiger wanted to surpass Jack. It looks like he mightn't get there, but are we going to call Tiger's career a failure? Absolutely not. It's arguably the best. He's played the best golf anyone's ever seen.”

Compare that with Bryson DeChambeau who, on the same podium just a couple hours before, revealed that he wants to win a career grand slam. That’s a hell of an ambitious goal, especially considering DeChambeau has only one top 10 in both the Masters and the Open. But numbers are the lifeblood of DeChambeau’s existence. What works for him doesn’t work for McIlroy … and, most likely, vice versa.

McIlroy allowed that he does have some specific goals in mind — topping Nick Faldo (six majors) and Seve Ballesteros (five) to claim the title of most successful modern European golfer ever, to start. It’s a noble aim, enough to keep McIlroy going without tying his entire mental state and self-worth to a specific number.

“There's always going to be that tinge of what could have been,” McIlroy said. “I don't want to do that to myself. If someone would have told me at 20 years old I'd be sitting here at 35 and this is the career I've had, I would not have believed them and I would have been ecstatic.”

That’s the key right there, looking at the numbers as if looking forward, not backward. Focusing on what’s gained, not what’s missed or lost. The thing with numbers is, there’s always a higher one. There’s always a number you haven’t yet reached. And the only way to escape that is to stop counting.

“I still like to think I've got a good run ahead of me,” McIlroy said. “Whatever those numbers are, whatever the totals add up to, I'll accept that and feel like I've done pretty well for a little boy from Northern Ireland that dreamed of playing golf for a living one day.”

McIlroy tees off in search of that next major at 1:14 p.m. on Thursday … and wherever the road leads from there, he’ll accept it.

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