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Rory McIlroy Q&A: Making good habits stick, his pizza weakness and the injury scare that changed his career

March 31, 2023

There are countless careers that have found their way to the scrapheap of history. An unlucky injury, some unfortunate timing, a bit of bad advice, a hampered comeback. Soon, a once-bright future is extinguished. In another universe, a legendary junior golfer from Northern Ireland named Rory McIlroy was one of them.

It was around 2009, the year of his first Masters appearance, that McIlroy noticed the pain in his back. It had come and gone before, but it was different now, suddenly sharper—and lingering longer.

“It got really bad at the start of the 2010,” Rory McIlroy tells Golf Digest in an exclusive interview. “I played in the Masters and missed the cut. The back really wasn’t feeling good.”

About to turn only 21 at the time, McIlroy booked an MRI to get it checked out. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting to find, but the results rocked him: A near stress fracture to the facet joint between his L4 and L5 vertebrae that McIlroy describes as “very close.” The facet joint is the tissue which connects the vertebrae in the spine. When that goes, it leaves bone grinding on bone. That’s the back injury which hampered Tiger Woods, McIlroy’s childhood idol, for years. The one that makes twisting, turning and tilting hurt, in his own words. It’s the single biggest career-killer for professional golfers.

For the first time in his life, McIlroy saw the veil of immortality drop from his game.

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“The doctor said to me, ‘Look, if you don't start taking care of yourself or getting stronger, you can seriously jeopardize how long your career is,’” he said. “That was a wake-up call for me.”

McIlroy had tempted fate, and it would be the last time. He took a month off to recover and began working with a physio. He won his next PGA Tour start at Quail Hollow—the first of his now 24 PGA Tour victories. It was coincidental timing, McIlroy later admitted, but in the moment, it was validation that he was moving in the right direction. He saw clearly the road to a long, injury-free career ahead of him.

Thirteen years later, McIlroy has become a statesman-like figurehead for the PGA Tour who, one green jacket away from becoming the sixth golfer to complete the career Grand Slam. Whether he ever achieves that feat or not, he remains the epitome of a modern-day, elite professional athlete.

Earlier this season, in our interview with the current World No. 2, we left the existential questions about LIV Golf, a potential equipment rollback and his quest for another major to one side. McIlroy has made his opinion on those matters abundantly clear, and it won’t be long before he’s asked about those again.

Instead, we opted for the nitty gritty. How does a professional athlete prepare his body for peak performance? What do off weeks look like? How does a professional athlete like McIlroy prepare for the biggest stretch of his career, seeking the result they may define his career?

Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Luke Kerr-Dineen: You spoke about your near-back injury wake-up call, which begs the question: What did your diet and exercise routine look like before that?

Rory McIlroy: Honestly, it was non-existent. The most exercise I would've had was probably walking 18 holes. And then diet wise, I was a typical teenager: A ton of fried food, burgers, pizza, soda, not a ton of vegetables in there. Looking back on it, in a way, it was not good. But it led me down a path where I really needed to reassess what I was doing.

In that period of about to turn pro, and then probably the first couple years as a pro, I didn't take that side of things seriously at all. But then I realized I needed to going forward. It was a big lesson learned, and obviously that lesson has stayed with me throughout my career up until this point.

LKD: When it comes to breaking bad habits and making big lifestyle changes it’s so hard to make them stick. How did you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?

RM: I’m not saying that I deprive myself. I still enjoy myself, and I think that's a very big part of it. I'm not a proponent of going all in one way or another. You need to have balance in your life, and that's what I've always tried to do. I think for me, my whole life that I wanted to be the best player in the world, and I just thought, ‘Well, if I want to be the best player in the world, I have to start to do these types of things that that'll help me on that path, and on that journey.’ I've always been intrinsically motivated anyway to be the best that I can be. And I just realized to be the best that I can be, I need to start to incorporate more habits that are healthier, and that could obviously add to my longevity and my performance.

LKD: And I suppose when it’s a doctor explaining what can happen if you don’t that helps, too.

RM: It's a wake-up call, right? You've got a guy that sees thousands of backs a year, and he's telling you that if you don't start looking after yourself that the career that you thought was going to last 30 years might only last 10. That's a pretty scary proposition.

LKD: As for the rest of us, we’re always looking to lose a few pounds and get a little healthier. What’s your advice?

RM: Everyone has these grand ambitions when they start off, whether it be a New Year's resolution or that they've gotten sick and tired of feeling or looking a certain way.

I fall into this trap, too. Someone says, "January 1, and I want to lose 25 pounds by Easter." It's almost too much, too early. You have these big dreams and goals, and you start to punish yourself when you fall off the wagon, and then you don't really get back on the tracks again.

Instead, it's like, well, how about just 10? And then maybe another 10 by the summer? It's a long road ahead, and it takes a while to build these habits into your daily life.

It's a long-winded way of saying smaller goals, smaller expectations. Setting simpler, smaller goals is just such an easier way to maintain things, and meeting those goals every single time makes people feel better about themselves, and you can continue on the right path.

LKD: Alright so back to you: What does a normal, non-tournament day look like for you? What did you do before this?

RM: Before this I made Poppy breakfast and brought her to daycare and came back home. I haven’t done anything yet. In-season I try to prioritize practice, obviously. The most important thing is making sure that my golf game is in good shape, so I'll get that done first, and then I'll train in the afternoons. By 4 p.m., I’ll be in the gym.

I don't have a set routine day to day. Again, I sort of try to have balance in my life. I used to get really caught up in things like, ‘Oh, if I don't do this or if I don't do that, then the whole day's ruined." Now it’s more like, as long as I get my stuff in, and I’m happy with the quality of the work rather than the quantity, then I know that it's been a good day.

LKD: Then what about tournament days?

RM: Those are a little more structured. I get to the golf course three hours before [a round], I go into the fitness trailer. I do my warmup. I do my exercises. I really like to get there ahead of time so that I don't feel rushed. I feel like that three hours of preparation for me before I go and play golf, it's sacred time to get myself in the right place mentally, to make sure that I fuel properly, that I've got the right stuff in my body to go out and play and spend five, five and a half hours on the golf course.

After the round I really make sure I recover well, do whatever modalities that I like to do, especially if I'm playing a few weeks in a row. Getting some treatment from a physio, I use [Hyperice] Normatec boots and percussion massage guns to recover at home. I've really gotten into Epsom salts baths, too. There's a ton that goes into it. But again, as long as I get everything in, I'm not really caught up in the whole timing and structure of things.

LKD: What kind of health metrics are you tracking with your body as you go through the day?

RM: Sleep and the quality of the sleep is very, very important. I will look at my WHOOP and it'll tell me to be at peak performance I need nine and a half hours sleep. And the way life is, that's not going to happen every night. There might be nights where you get eight and a half hours sleep, which is a great night's sleep. But it might be a quick turnaround and you've played on a Thursday afternoon, and you want to do some practice, and you get some food and you're teeing off again the next morning at 7:30, so it means that you're up at 4:30 or 4:15 or whatever it is. So you're only getting six hours sleep. So you just have to prioritize maybe having a nap later on that day, or whatever it is. The one thing that I've learned is it's very hard to have a perfect day, so you just have to take your wins.

LKD: That’s interesting. So nine and a half hours is the number you’re striving for, but not one you’re always hitting?

RM: I would love to average eight hours of sleep per night per week. But I would say I average between seven and eight hours, it's probably rare that I get eight hours sleep. I know that if I get over six and a half, that's fine for me. But again, everyone's different, right? And that's why it's so good to wear a WHOOP, because it tells you what you need. For me, I’ve found that taking a good dose of magnesium after my round, wearing a good eye mask because I'm very sensitive to light in the bedroom, making sure that the room is at a certain temperature; I know all the behaviors that I need to do to make sure that I give myself the best chance possible to get a good night's sleep, and be recovered for the next day and perform at my best.

LKD: And then as far as what you’re eating, I remember you say you track your protein intake pretty closely. Why is that so important?

RM: For me, the carbs and the fat can sort of vary from day to day, but if I know that if I’m getting an adequate amount of protein then everything else just falls into place.

I try to get 180 grams of protein per day, which when you're on tour and you're training and playing, you're going to struggle to do that. That's why it's really important for me to make sure the first thing I do when I sit down for a meal, or if I have a snack, I try to eat protein first, to just get that in.

LKD: What is it about protein that makes it so important for you?

RM: Late last year I wore a glucose monitor for a few months. I found that my body responds way better to carbs if I've had protein first. So for me, what you think is healthy, like a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, my blood sugar spikes way high if I just have a bowl of oatmeal. But if I have a protein shake before the oatmeal, it stays very level. Managing my protein intake means I don't have these massive spikes and massive crashes.

LKD: Your blood sugar spiking up and down seems like the kind of thing that would affect your focus. Is that something you were encountering?

RM: That was part of it. The other part was that I always try to put a little bit of weight on before the season starts, knowing that I'm probably going to lose a little bit as the season goes on. The nature of walking eight miles a day, playing 25 tournaments a year, plus practice, plus everything else. You're expending a ton of energy, and if you’re trying to eat somewhat healthy, you’ve got to eat so much to try to replenish that.

So it was a way for me to try to put weight on, but not have my insulin spike, and then not let my A1C number get high. The worst thing you want to do is you load up on carbs and then all of a sudden your A1C number gets a bit higher, and then it obviously creates some problems as well. So it was a way to try to put weight on, but to try to keep that A1C number within a really healthy range.

LKD: Not to make this conversation about me, but my New Year’s Resolution was to give up sugar during January …

RM: It’s addicting, right?

LKD: Oh my God, so addicting. Which is why I wanted to ask you what your relationship was like with sugar?

RM: My relationship with sugar is actually not that bad. I crave more savory things, greasy things. Burgers, fries, that sort of stuff. I would say the one big thing for me is gluten. I wouldn't say I've got a gluten intolerance, but my stomach just doesn't do great with gluten. So I try to avoid that. I mostly eat a gluten-free diet. I have on a rare occasion a slice of pizza or something, and it's totally fine. But for the most part I try to avoid that, but that's really the only thing that I feel has a negative effect on my body. I'll do more potatoes, or rice, instead. Some people say that they don't like eating red meat, because it sort of affects the recovery, but I haven't really found that

LKD: What about caffeine, is that something you’re drinking during on-weeks or off-weeks?

RM: I've got a coffee right beside me now. My caffeine intake is probably a little higher than I would want it to be, but I try to not have any caffeine after 2 p.m., and I feel like if I drink a lot of caffeine that the effect it has on me isn't quite the same as someone that doesn't drink it a lot. I probably have on average two double espressos a day. Usually one in the morning and then one after lunch.

LKD: What about the big one, alcohol?

RM: I enjoy a glass of wine. I've sort of learned through WHOOP as well that one glass of wine for me is totally fine, but if I go above one glass, that's when I start to struggle with my recovery. My heart rate goes up, and my HRV starts to go down. But I won't deprive myself. A glass of wine at night with dinner; I'm sort of happy to do that.

LKD: I’ve always been curious about how often pros deal with little injuries that the rest of us don't notice?

RM: I would say more weeks than not. Most guys week to week are conscious of something in their bodies that doesn't quite feel 100 percent. It's just the nature of what we do, the wear and tear that the season has on our bodies. The fact that we don't have a ton of time between seasons to try to really let the body recover fully. I think that's obviously something that we're trying to rectify with the new tour schedule going forward and letting guys have more of an off season if they want it.

LKD: The last thing I wanted to talk about, which sort of relates to all of this, is that it seems like every time I talk to a tour player like yourself, they're always focusing on getting a little faster, a little stronger, a little better. A lot of golf fans always seem to have this knee-jerk reaction of “Why are they changing stuff? Don't change anything.” So I guess my question is, what are we missing with that line of logic?

RM: In any profession, and especially if you're an athlete, if you're doing the same stuff and you're standing still, you're going to get passed by. When you look at top level performers and elite athletes, there's always things they're trying to do to get better. That's why they are in the position that they're in. They're constantly trying to look for improvements, because there's always room for improvement. There's no point in being the No. 1-ranked player in the world and saying, “Oh, I'm just going to do the same stuff, and hopefully no one gets to this level or passes me by.” That doesn't work. That's the reason why, when you speak to tour players, they're trying to get stronger, faster, whatever.

I’ll also say players aren't making these decisions willy-nilly. There's a lot of analytics and data that goes into these decisions, to be like, “If I do this, or if I increase my club head speed, or if I get a little stronger, it's either going to help my driving, or help my longevity, or help me sustain my performance all the way through a season.” Players don't just wake up one day and say, “Oh, I want to try this, or I want to try that.”

LKD: It’s constantly making little changes that seems to be the only constant.

RM: Exactly. If you're not trying to get better, then you're just going to be passed by guys that are trying to get better.