“In an open marketplace for attention, darker emotions attract more eyeballs than positive and constructive thoughts. For heavy internet users, repeated interaction with this darkness can become a source of draining negativity . . .
-Cal Newport, author of “Digital Minimalism”
ATLANTA – Between marathon rounds Sunday at the Tour Championship Rory McIlroy said he planned to retreat to his makeshift home for the week and read.
His tome of choice for the finale was “Digital Minimalism.” But before you think the Northern Irishman has jumped the anti-technology shark, consider the circumstances.
“[The book] was lying on the bed the other night, and I was on my phone, and Erica [his wife] said, that's ironic,” McIlroy laughed. “It's just using [technology] the right way, I guess.”
McIlroy’s much-talked-about march to living a mindful and uncluttered life and arguably the most consistent year of his already Hall of Fame career is not mutually exclusive. From the outset of the 2019 season he imagined a better existence not defined by what he does for living but how he lives. The result has been an impressively uncluttered life and the type of clarity you don’t often expect from an elite athlete in his prime.
“Some of the work that I've put in on the mental side of the game and some of the things I've been doing, I definitely think you're starting to see the fruition of that,” McIlroy said at East Lake where he became just the second player, after Tiger Woods, to win the FedExCup twice. “Just a different approach, a little bit of a different attitude. That attitude and that consistency day in, day out, I think that's what you've seen over the course of this year.”
It’s a path McIlroy has been on since the first week of January when he arrived in Maui for the Sentry Tournament of Champions. In ’19 his focus had shifted almost exclusively to the United States along with an attitude that, at least in Tour circles, bordered on Zen-like.
He shrugged off top-five finishes in Maui, the Farmers Insurance Open and the Genesis Open. And when he finished runner-up to Dustin Johnson the following week at the WGC-Mexico Championship, instead of frustration, he went with perspective.
“It was good. Some weeks you play well and someone just plays better,” he reasoned at the time.
Similarly, when he won The Players the following month there was no real outlet moment. There was no reason to make this tournament any less or more important than the next.
It’s the Chuck D lyric: Don’t let a win get to your head or a loss to your heart.
In the darkest moment of ’19, he turned inward to process something he’d never felt. Maybe it was fear, maybe it was anxiety, maybe it was simply too much weight for one man to handle. Whatever it was, McIlroy’s missed cut at The Open – the first played in his homeland in a half century – certainly qualified as a learning moment even for the 30-year-old.
“I learned a lot. Going into that first round at Portrush and trying to treat it like any other day. It’s like going into Sundays and trying to treat it like any other day,” McIlroy said. “You have to be a realist and realize it’s not and you have to prepare for it.”
The more immediate darkness for McIlroy came on Sunday in the form of back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 14 and 15 during the final round at the Tour Championship, which turned what was shaping up to be a nice stroll into something much more tense. That is, until he closed with birdies at the 17th and 18th holes for a commanding victory.
The season finale was panned in some circles for the new strokes-based format that seeded the top 30 players based on the playoff points list from 10 under (Justin Thomas) to even par (No. 30 on the list). McIlroy started the week at 5 under par and won by four strokes – or for those tracking at home, three shots without the built-in bonus.
It was an inspired finish for McIlroy, who won the bookends of the "season of championships" – the Tour’s reimagined slate that began in March with The Players and ended on Sunday at the Tour Championship. Brooks Koepka effectively won everything in between.
It all creates a compelling study in how the players view the new season and the FedExCup’s place among the game’s biggest events.
In the next few days, players will vote for the PGA Tour's Player of the Year award, a contest that, until this week, seemed like a foregone conclusion with Koepka having won three times, including the PGA Championship and the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational. But McIlroy added a layer to the conversation with his FedExCup victory, his third this season.
“Rory has outplayed Brooks by a mile in how he's done the entire year. It's unbelievable how he's played,” said Thomas, who tied for third and five strokes back. “But the most important thing is wins and playing great in the big events, and nobody has done that better than Brooks. I don't know how you don't give Brooks the Player of the Year with three wins and a major and a WGC and top four in every major. That's pretty strong.”
McIlroy probably won’t be paying much attention to the voting or anything else that might crop up in his digital universe. He’s aware of the workings of the social media world, as evidenced by his reaction to Phil Mickelson’s most recent shirtless post on Saturday.
“When I got in [the locker room], the first thing I saw was another topless photo of Phil Mickelson, so that made my day,” he joked on Friday following a weather delay.
He’s just not consumed by the flood of digital information, much like he’s not consumed by the predictable ebb and flow of a season, even a season as impressive as 2019.
Early in “Digital Minimalism,” Newport explains the process of stripping away all of one’s electronic distractions: “The declutter acts as a jarring reset: you come into the process a frazzled maximalist and leave an intentional minimalist.”
There’s no way of knowing exactly where McIlroy might be on that spectrum, but on the path to living a mindful life, it’s impossible to separate the player from the person. It’s clear that both made huge strides in 2019.