The Conscience: Rory McIlroy
The letter that McIlroy received from Palmer after he won the 2011 United States Open for his first major title included this piece of advice: “Just continue to be yourself. Don’t change.”
McIlroy interpreted Palmer’s words to mean that he should not change his demeanor, his aggressive play, his comportment. But maybe McIlroy’s honesty also made an impression on Palmer, who was not afraid to speak out when he saw people in the sport he loved behaving badly.
In March 1982, Palmer decried the ungentlemanly behavior and selfishness of some of the Tour’s top players in a missive to Deane Beman, then the PGA Tour commissioner. In the correspondence, which Beman circulated among the rest of the membership, Palmer described the actions of a few of the players toward volunteers, spectators and amateurs in the pro-ams as “despicable.”
Thirty-five years later, McIlroy had harsh words for the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which runs Muirfield, a private club in Scotland, after it required two rounds of voting to summon the three-fourths majority needed to end the club’s all-male membership policy.
McIlroy said it was “horrendous” that 123 members still voted against admitting women and added: “In this day and age, where you’ve got women that are the leaders of certain industries and women that are heads of state and not to be able to join a golf course? I mean, it’s obscene.”
The Critic: Jordan Spieth
Woe is the golfer whose target is perfection. When Palmer failed to pull off the shot that sometimes only he could see, he could be his own Greek chorus.
In a 1961 article in Sports Illustrated, a writer who followed Palmer reported hearing him mutter, “Come on, stupid!” after an approach fell short, “Fool!” after a putt failed to drop and “You’re nothing but an old maid” — a reference to unpopped kernels of corn — after a hooked tee shot.
Spieth described his own self-talk as “straightforward annoyance with an inadequate golf shot.” Like Palmer, he is known for his running commentary when he is struggling. He has his own version of “You’re nothing but an old maid.” It’s “Jordan, are we even thinking today?”
During a first-round loss to Hideto Tanihara at last month’s World Golf Championships match-play event in Austin, Tex., Spieth muttered after a wayward drive: “Really? Are you serious right now?”
On a different hole in the same match, Spieth’s ball landed behind a tree. As he set up to hit with branches scratching his face, he responded sardonically to a positioning suggestion by his caddie, Michael Greller: “I mean, what do you want me to be? The tree?”
The Putter: Brandt Snedeker
Like Palmer, Snedeker came from a modest background. His putting stroke reflects his early exposure to municipal greens that had the consistency of worn carpeting. Snedeker adopted a pop stroke with his putter, the better to propel the ball toward the hole. Even after he graduated to lusher courses, with grasses that roll like linoleum, no one dared to change his stroke.
“It was always a strength of mine, so they just let me go with it,” Snedeker said.
Early in his pro career, he played a nine-hole practice round at Bay Hill with Palmer, who told Snedeker that he liked his putting rhythm and offered a putting tip that Snedeker leans on whenever he’s dissatisfied with his performance.
“I stick the putter in the ground after I putt to see if it’s square where I’m trying to hit it,” he said. “It seems to always get me back in the right frame of mind.”
The Orator: Jason Day
In his biography of Palmer, Callahan told a story from the Masters about a nervous reporter asking Palmer an awkwardly worded question. Rather than unkindly dismissing it, or making a joke at his expense, Palmer reworded the question and answered it expansively. Callahan wrote, “I remember thinking, it’s a natural grace.”
“Grace” is a good word to describe Day, who answers reporters’ questions in several paragraphs when, for many of his peers, one sentence would suffice. Ask him for one minute of his time and he’ll gladly talk for a half-hour.
In his final tuneup for the Masters, Day pulled out of the World Golf Championships match-play event after completing six holes of his first match. He could have cited personal reasons and left it at that, but Day insisted on visiting the interview room to deliver a tearful statement about his mother’s lung-cancer diagnosis and how the exploratory surgery she was scheduled to undergo later in the week left him unable to concentrate on golf.
His mother’s doctors were able to remove the tumor in her left lung during the surgery, and on Monday, Day said he found out that she would not require chemotherapy.
He has never shied away from talking about tough subjects. If asked a question about his father’s abusive behavior when he was a child or his mother’s battle with cancer, Day will answer the best he can. As with Palmer, his vulnerability and accessibility draw people close.
“I’m in a really good situation being able to sit up here in front of you guys and be able to talk about situations that I’m going through and to be able to tell you honestly and truthfully what’s inside my heart,” Day said. “I feel like that takes a lot of pressure off my shoulders.”