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Rory McIlroy and the Art of Suffering

At the driving range

There are many obvious similarities between golf and the expedition world. Pushing on stoically towards the finish despite being fed-up, starving, and quite unable to recall why you once thought that this was a good idea. A belief that if only you had shinier, more expensive equipment then all your troubles would be over. And the sensation of hacking through inpenetrable wilderness, marvelling that you are in a place where no human being has ever set foot.

I played golf on Sunday, in the New Forest, with my brother and my Dad. It was a fabulous day. The sort of day that reminds me why I don’t want to spend my whole life out on the road.

I’mm rubbish at golf. I play about twice a year and yet am still surprised when I four-putt. Despite this I was reflecting that regular rounds of golf would make a fantastic addition to my training regime for the South Pole. Before my expedition partner, Ben, splutters into his protein shake at the very thought of this, let me explain.

Sunday also happened to be the final day of the Masters’ Golf Tournament, one of the biggest sporting events of the year. For three-and-a-half days out of four it had been led by a precocious, talented, likeable 21-year old called Rory McIlroy.

I was glued to the TV watching the final few hours of the tournament, and cheering for the young Northern Irishman. And then, seemingly from nowhere, he blew it. He missed easy putts, he smacked his ball into the trees time and time again, and in the space of about half an hour he had thrown away the biggest opportunity of his career with one of the most spectacular displays of mental self-destruction I have ever seen in sport. It was horrible to watch. It was compelling to watch. It sums up why sport, with all its obvious pointlessness and triviality, holds such a grip on me. For it is a parable of real life, lived out in technicolor on the telly, in a form far more distilled and potent than ‘normal’ real life.

I didn’t enjoy watching poor young Rory McIlroy chuck away an opportunity that 99.99% of people who have ever swung a golf club could only dream of. But it was powerful. And that, added to my own musings as I hacked away a pleasant Sunday morning, is what made me think that golf should be added to all expedition training regimes.

  • You have so much time to reflect on what might go wrong next (me), or what may go spectacularly right (Rory). Neither is helpful. All that matters is the present, making the very best decision and executing that decision to the best of your ability. Dwelling on the past certainly won’t help.
  • The moment you start thinking about how great success will be is the moment you are vulnerable. You’re not safe until the very end. Don’t even glimpse inside Pandora’s box until you are safe.
  • You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, and when to go for glory with a 5-wood over the trees. In other words, there’s a time for caution, for measured decisions under pressure. And there’s a time to say to hell with it and do something daft.
  • You see deep inside yourself. Your strengths, your weaknesses, your frailty of mind. Golf exposes them to you and lets you work on them before you find yourself on a glacier in a howling katabatic storm.
  • So, what is it? Are you fearing failure or are you fearing the anticipation of succeeding at the greatest ambition of your life? Two putts to win the Masters is every inch as mentally complex as making difficult decisions when you are cold, wet, scared and tired.
  • Golf, like most expeditions, is pointless yet wonderful. Rory McIlroy describes it on Twitter thus, “I hit a little white ball around a field sometimes!” And my polar partner, Ben, (who I am quite sure has never heard of Rory McIrlroy) describes his occupation on Twitter as “Drags heavy things around cold places“.
  • Rory’s first tweet after blowing his shot at glory read, “you have to lose before you can win. This day will make me stronger in the end.” If expeditions were easy there would be no point in doing them. Or, to put it slightly bitchily, easy expeditions are pointless. Rory McIlroy would not gain much from playing against me. You have to test yourself at your limits.

I really hope Rory McIlroy bounces back and nails the Masters sometime soon. He accepted his defeat with grace and that’s at least as important as winning. As for me, it’s a combination of running up hills to harden the body and occasional 6-foot putts to win the (pretend) Masters to harden the mind.

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  1. Thanks for those thoughts Alastair. I agree with your comparison of golf and expeditions. Having played golf for 20 years, I know how much of a ‘mind’ game it is. There is no other explanation as to why you can play a brilliant round one day and seem like an absolute beginner the next. Rory McIlroy showed in the first 3 days that he was an exceptional player. What happened on Sunday had nothing to do with his skill at golf, it was totally mental. I sat at Glenshee in 1996 and watched Greg Norman throw away the same major, after having a six shot lead. Likewise, the Black Ball Final in snooker between Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor was all about mental stamina. Davis was leading 8-0, yet Taylor clawed his way back into the match until the score was 17-17. The deciding frame came down to the black ball, which went up and down the table, before Taylor potted it. From your expedition side, I can only think what it was like when I climbed Munros. Soaked through and hardly able to see through the low cloud, I often wondered why I was doing this, it would have been so easy to head home. But the mental rewards are so great when you drive yourself forward. George Mackay Brown, talks about ‘Smeddum’ in his short story by this name. We all need smeddum.



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