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Local Knowledge

Rory McIlroy remembers an all-time meltdown as a teenage rookie

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David Cannon

Rory McIlroy was not like most professional golfers in that he was a phenom. Whereas the vast majority of players trudge through years of mini-tours and Mondays before getting to the show, McIlroy had cracked the world’s top 50 at the age of 19. And while his rise to the pinnacle of the sport was rapid, it was not without the harsh wake-up call that is life on tour.

“I was 18 years old, on the road by myself, loving it because it’s independence,” McIlroy says in the latest episode of Golf Digest’s Local Knowledge podcast.

“I’d just missed a few cuts in a row, and I was in Korea—Jeju Island—playing the Ballantyne Championship. And I missed the cut again. So I was struggling. I had never felt so far from home and so lonely. I remember going back to my hotel room, at the end of the bed, crying, and I raided the min-ibar. Not the drinks. It was like Pringles, Coke, Toblerone. I just remember this complete meltdown.”

There is, of course, quite the payoff for those who successfully navigate the emotional rollercoaster. It’s all worked out OK for McIlroy, after all.

“And then, this is how quick things can change in golf,” he says. “So (the meltdown) was in April 2008. Fast forward six months, to October ‘08, and I’m playing the Singapore Open. And I’m playing with Ernie Els in the third round. And we’re in like the second-to-last group. I remember he hit driver off the first tee. And I’m like Wow, this is so cool, I’m playing with Ernie Els. He hit driver off the first tee, and I hit my 3-wood past his driver. I was like, Oooh yeah, this is really cool.”

This week’s Local Knowledge dives deep into the emotional rollercoaster that comes with securing—and then trying to keep—your playing privileges. Getting status on the world’s biggest tour marks the completion of a lifelong dream—playing in front of a jam-packed grandstand, for an absurd amount of money, with TV cameras everywhere and Tiger Woods in the group behind. There’s a temptation to drink it all in, to bask in the afterglow of the accomplishment. Only there’s no time to do that, because as soon as one gets to the PGA Tour, one must immediately figure out how to stay on the PGA Tour. It’s not just playing harder courses against better players; it’s figuring out what events you can get into, where you’re going to stay—and, ideally, how you’re going to manage all that prize money.

Second-year player Matthew NeSmith—who struggled mightily on the Canadian Tour before getting his status—serves as our guide through the transition from the developmental tours to the Big Tour. Which, for him, happened at an inopportune time.

“I had to cancel my bachelor party for my wedding to go to orientation for the PGA Tour,” NeSmith said. “Which was the greatest way to cancel a bachelor party.”

We talked to a number of tour players in addition to McIlroy and NeSmith, including Harris English and Matthew Fitzpatrick about the moment they’d realized they’d “made it”—and the on-the-fly changes they had to make to ensure their time on Tour would last more than a single season.