A lesson in humility

Last year, Rory McIlroy had one of the finest years in professional golf. The 22-year-old phenom won five times around the world, including his second major championship by an 8-stroke margin of victory, and he became the #1 ranked player in the Official World Golf Rankings. He won the Vardon Trophy for having the lowest scoring average on tour, and he was voted Player of the Year by his fellow tour members. In December, he agreed to an endorsement deal with Nike worth a reported $100 million, and he’s dating a very talented, beautiful tennis star. Needless to say, life is going pretty well for Rory.

And then last Friday happened. After an average start on Thursday to the Honda Championship, a tournament he won last year to become the top-ranked player in the world, Rory had an awful day on the course. It was one of those days every golfer has in which you just wish you could go home, jump back in bed, and start the whole day over. Well, that’s just about what Rory did.

He was 7-over-par through 8 holes, which put him on track to shoot the high score of the day and probably miss the cut. Although it’s embarrassing for a touring pro to shoot in the 80s, most players experience this from time to time, with little fanfare, and they move on to the next tournament. Rory walked off the course without completing the 9th hole, citing a painful wisdom tooth as the reason he could not finish the round.

In quitting, Rory had exemplified the exact opposite of what a professional athlete should do. He damaged his reputation, he upset the tournament sponsors, disappointed fans, and I have a feeling Nike wasn’t too excited to hear their hundred-million-dollar-man had walked off the course mid-round with their logo all over his apparel.

For most professional athletes, we rarely see them apologize when they make a mistake. If we’re lucky, we might get an apology that goes something like this, “I’m sorry if I offended anybody by…” That’s like saying to your wife, “I’m sorry if I offended you by coming home an hour late and not communicating this to you.” The apology only accepts responsibility if someone was offended without simply saying, “I was wrong.”

In the world of high-dollar athletes, we were treated yesterday to a world-class lesson in humility. Instead of excusing his behavior or trying to explain it away, here is how Rory handled the media in regards to his decision to walk off the course.

“I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t the right thing to do. No matter how bad I was playing, I should have stayed out there. I should have tried to shoot the best score possible, even though it probably wasn’t going to be good enough to make the cut…It was a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes, and I’m learning from them.” He concluded by saying, “It is what it is. I regret what I did, but it’s over now and it won’t happen again.”

How many 23-year-olds do you know who, on the heels of one of the greatest years in golf and signing a lucrative deal with the company who brought us Air Jordan and TW, would stand before the media – men and women who have never dealt with the pressure he faces every day – and apologize for his actions with no conditions?

It was a lesson in humility, and for every fan he lost by his decision to quit last Friday he probably gained two by the way he handled himself yesterday. As I tell my five-year-old daughter, it’s okay to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. How you respond to your mistakes – with either pride or humility – says more about your character than what you did.

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