In the summer of 2010, Rory McIlroy was the most promising young talent in world golf. The weight of expectation on his then slender shoulders was immense. The sport was in search of a new hero after Tiger Woods’s fall from grace and the 21-year-old from County Down looked as if he had the raw ability to take his place.
Talent doesn’t, however, automatically ensure success and after McIlroy narrowly missed out on both the Open and the US PGA Championships, he went in search of the missing ingredient that could propel him from prodigy to master. In autumn 2010 he started working with the exercise physiologist Dr Steve McGregor. A few months later, after shooting a record-breaking 16 under par, McIlroy won the US Open by an impressive eight-stroke margin.
“I sometimes get questioned about the amount of stuff I do in the gym by golfers who wouldn’t know any better,” says McIlroy when he sits down with us at The Third Space gym in London. “I just have to say, look at who I was and where I was as a golfer in 2010. I started training in September 2010 and look at me now. Since I started training I’ve won four majors and got to world number one. So it can only help.”
We’re chomping our way through a post-workout mini-feast of protein pancakes and superfood juices, after McGregor has coached McIlroy and us through a sample of the sessions they do together.
McIlroy – looking lean and muscular – sailed through the circuits of pull-ups, deadlift variations and squat jumps. Of course, no amount of clever training is going to turn a hacker into a world champ – but if you adopt the training tactics he used to get to the top of his game, it might just keep you out of the sand a little bit longer next time you’re on the golf course.
Next: Jump to the Rory McIlroy Workout
What are you focusing on at the moment in training?
I have certain periods during the year where I focus on different things. At the start of the year it’s strength endurance. In the middle of the year it’s more power-based. I don’t really change my training depending on the tournament I’m playing, it’s more about the time of the year.
At the minute I’m at a time of the year where I’m working on power. Ask me this in February and it’s a different answer. If I play well I can focus on golf from April through to September, so I get the bulk of my training and my base done from January to March. I’m in the gym a lot at that time of year.
What does each workout look like?
If you’re doing a power phase you’re doing three sets of five reps or three reps, depending on the exercise. Right now I’m doing an upper-body and a lower-body split. The lower-body workout is explosive so there are a couple of box jump variations in there. There are reverse lunges but with a weight overhead to work on shoulder stability. Maybe a 6-8kg weight just to stabilise the shoulder. Then there might be a barbell lateral lunge.
Most of the time I’ll finish with a core circuit which is four exercises back to back. I’m in and out of the gym in an hour in the middle of the season. That’s when you want to minimise the time you’re in the gym to make sure you’re getting enough time on the golf course.
Do you like being in the gym?
I do. I think I’ve learned to love it. You start off and you hate it, you’re like, “Do I have to do this?” but once you start to see results and you start to get stronger… I think that’s where the enjoyment comes from. It’s the challenge of getting better and when you notice that you are getting better, that’s when you start to enjoy it a bit more.
Performance is obviously the main thing that matters to you, but have you noticed physical changes too?
Yeah, it’s a bonus. It was never something that was a main objective. I don’t need to look like Anthony Joshua but if you do spend time in the gym and you do the right things and you eat well, it’s a by-product of it. It’s not like I’m trying to look good but it’s a nice bonus. If you compare the way I look now with how I looked in 2010, there’s a big difference.
Do you feel different?
Yeah, I do feel different. My posture is better. I’m more stable in my core. I’m stronger in my legs. I can hold positions in the swing better. I wouldn’t say I went into the gym to try to find distance or length, but it has made my body movement much more consistent. And because I’m more consistent in my movements I’m less likely to get into bad habits.
Do you find you have more energy towards the end of a tournament?
I think I recover faster and that’s a big thing. I might feel a bit tired or my legs might get a bit heavy, particularly, say, at the Ryder Cup where you play 36 holes and walk 12 miles [in a day].
It’s more about education – so if I feel tired then it’s, “OK, what do I need to do?” I know I need to refuel, I need to get something into my body or wear compression socks… there are loads of things you can do.
That’s why working with Steve has been such a benefit because he has educated me. And all this stuff I’ve picked up along the way means that he’s comfortable with leaving me alone for a couple of weeks and saying, “You know what you need to do”.
Do you give him feedback about how you’re feeling?
Definitely. I got into this because my back was bad so that’s something we’ve had to manage since we started. And there are a lot of things that are specific to me – I always want to be in [back] extension. Being in a hunched position, for me, is not good so I make sure I have good posture to engage my lower back.
With the box jumps that I’m doing at the minute, I need to make sure I keep my chest up in the jump because if I hunch over at all, it just doesn’t feel very good. So I’m always giving him feedback about how I feel – we’re in constant contact. We both know my body so well now that we can modify things if we need to, or design programmes around things that might limit me in some way.
Do you do much cardio training?
I like running. I can go and run a 5K in 20 minutes. I used to like the bike but because it puts you in a hunched-over position, I can’t do it any more – and running is better for me because it’s good for your posture. If I was going to do any sort of cardio at all, it would be a run. I could push myself to run a 10K but I don’t really need to – I’ve no ambition to run a marathon at any stage. But I enjoy going out and running a 5K, trying to set a decent time and pace. It’s a nice way to clear the head as well.
You recently announced that you wouldn’t be taking part in the Rio Olympics. Was that a tough decision to make?
I feel like I have four Olympic games a year, which are the majors. They’re the things that are most important to me. I weighed up the risk and the reward, and I felt like the reward for me – and it is different for everyone – wasn’t worth it. So I said, you know what, I’m happy with my four Olympics a year.
The man behind the master
Dr Steve McGregor helped McIlroy win majors and top the world rankings. Here’s how he did it
When you work with a global sports star such as Rory McIlroy, you’re required to slot into a select team of people at the top of their game and help your athlete dominate the competition. “My overall job is to provide the scientific support to the coaching process,” says McGregor. “I bring the objective view, whether that’s analysing the golf swing or looking at some performance analysis statistics. And then I’m the physio, I advise on nutrition and I work on strength and conditioning. Since I came in to work with Rory in 2010, I’ve extended the objective analysis by taking him into a laboratory and quantifying some things that maybe you can’t see on a video: putting numbers to the range of motion, identifying power information and analysing blood profiles.”
When McGregor joined the team, McIlroy wasn’t in super-athlete shape and there was some fundamental work to be done. “When we started working in 2010, Rory had a back issue and we did various assessments and measures,” says McGregor. “One thing I highlighted was that Rory was particularly weak in his legs. That was leading to a lot of over-rotation in his lower body and more force being put into his spine. So we worked on his leg strength to give him more robustness around his hamstrings, glutes and quads. That gave him more stability and support when hitting the ball.”
The long-term plan
“The main outcome is to allow Rory to practise as often as he can,” says McGregor. “That was what was restricted initially and once we addressed that it allowed him to do more technical practice. That’s what should allow him to become a better player and also give him longevity. As his training continued we focused on injury-proofing and increases in strength and power. That translates into other aspects that are important to him, which is greater shot distance and greater control of the club head.”