Welcome to Masters week. I want to talk about Rory McIlroy and carrot cake.
Golf Channel had a segment this week where they asked players the most Golf Media catnip subject on earth: "What would you serve at the Champion's Dinner if you were fortunate enough to win the Masters?" It's become the "Freebird" of golf questions, so clichéd yet ... still fun.
For so many golfers, it's a fantasy, and will forever remain one. Anything is possible, of course, but hearing Billy Horschel or Pat Perez talk about serving t-bone steak or Paul Casey say banana pudding always strikes me the kind of dream you long for, but deep down, also doubt.
It's different with Rory. I was mildly surprised he participated in the segment, but I shouldn't have been. He remains polite and grounded, willing to humor the endless Masters hype machine, even though at age 31, Augusta seems less like a dream and more like a burden.
Rory said he'd recently enjoyed a nice piece of carrot cake, volunteering maybe it would make for a fun dessert, and you could see, as he answered, a subtle weariness in his smile. Having been so close to that reality in the past, I suspect it no longer feels like a fun exercise.
The Masters does weird things to golfers who can't crack its code. The subtle perks that winners come to love — a past champion's dinner, the champion's locker room & parking lot, the privilege to play every year — begin to haunt great players who don't get to experience them.
When Rory led by 4 going into Sunday in 2011, many of us made the foolish mistake of assuming he'd win 3 or 4 jackets. The place seemed perfect for him. Watching him hit towering iron shots, fearlessly challenging dangerous pins, was supposed to be our post-Tiger golf nirvana.
The real mistake, in assessing him, was assuming he just because he could hit the ball like Tiger didn't mean he possessed Tiger's ability to compartmentalize & deaden his emotions. If Tiger thought deeply about something, he never let you know. His stare felt like a force field.
Every year, people predict that Rory will finally get his green jacket, that he's too good not to win one, but every year, he has a stretch where big thoughts seem to weigh him down. The fearlessness of youth only returns when he's essentially out of contention, annoyed yet free.
My friend @JPosnanski pointed out something about Rory at the Masters five years ago that's always stuck with me. "Every year, he has a new theory for what might help crack the code. Listen to his pre-tournament presser. He's already try to talk himself through the psychology."
Sometimes he'll play a ton of practice rounds prior. Other times, he won't visit Augusta at all until the tournament. Sometimes, he'll say he's hyper-focused on the Masters, other times he'll say it's just another tournament. It's a fascinating trip to a therapist's couch.
There is this running joke amongst those of us who follow golf about "perspective." Golf Media *loves* stories about perspective. It is as catnip as a champion's dinner menu. We long to think "peace of mind" can be connected to athletic performance somehow, and Rory is Exhibit A.
The truth? It's probably the opposite. Being a transcendent athlete often means you're an obsessive personality, a borderline psycho. Becoming a new father, an equal partner and parent, playing soccer with friends, All probably hinder your athletic quests. That's okay to admit.
Rory did a smart thing when he was young. He refused to engage with questions about chasing Tiger's major total, much less Jack Nicklaus' total. He didn't want Tiger's suffocating life, one where golf was an all consuming, joyless climb. He wanted to read and travel. To juggle!
Yet there's no denying he played his best when he was selfish, when he strutted down fairways w/ the swagger of a man who'd never thought about how many tomorrows — or Masters — he still had in front of him. He once called it a "fact, not opinion" he was the best golfer alive.
Would he trade personal happiness for golfing immortality? I think the answer is obvious. He would not. He's already made his choice. But that doesn't mean the duality of *really* wanting the Masters, while also telling yourself you don't need it, doesn't exist.
The carrot cake would taste amazing, but probably less so if people asked you, every year, "Hey when are you FINALLY gonna to get to serve that carrot cake? Didn't you almost serve it when you were 21 & then fall down a flight of stairs for four hours? Can you talk about that?"
I'll forever admire Rory's willingness to lower his shields, to let us in ways Tiger wouldn't (or couldn't) but I get why Augusta no longer fills him with warmth.

It's a beautiful place, but brutal too. It's the kind of place one could easily begin to dread by needing too much.

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More from @KVanValkenburg

11 Nov 20
I've been thinking a lot lately about Jordan Spieth & the thin line between being buoyed by the magic of good fortune in golf versus getting mired in misery of bad breaks. The line is theoretical, obv. But it also may exist in the form of the tree branch hanging over 18 at ANGC.
I used to joke with @KylePorterCBS and @BrendanPorath that if watching DJ was like watching a Ferrari, Spieth was like a circus performer riding a unicycle down a flight of stairs. It was an amazing feat of concentration and athleticism, and it *always* felt like disaster loomed.
It used to annoy me when a small group of golf fans attributed Spieth's success to good fortune, as if he were sprinkled w/ fairy dust or taking does of Felix Felicis (indulge me; I'm reading Harry Potter with my daughter). Often, being great in golf means creating your own luck.
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12 Nov 19
I don't want to dunk on the Northwestern J-students, in part because I think we need journalists now more than ever and punching down in his profession is extremely shitty, but I do want to tell a story about why we call people who might not want to be contacted for stories.
When I was a first-year reporter at the Baltimore Sun covering crime in the suburban bureau, a teenage girl from my coverage area committed suicide by jumping off a parking garage. My editor asked me to reach out to her family to see if they wanted to talk.
I felt physically sick, staring at the phone. I didn't want to do it. After all, she was not a public figure. She had committed no crime. I thought, seriously, about lying and telling my editor I'd made the call and the family declined to comment. But for some reason, I called.
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29 Mar 18
One week away, so I'm going to share some of my favorite Masters pics. Feel free to add yours to the thread. This, by Fred Vuich for SI, was taken as Tiger played 18 to complete the Tiger Slam in 2002 and is a work of art.
Did anyone ever look better in black and white pics better than Arnie?
I mean, seriously?
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