In a world where seemingly everything deemed important is posted, analyzed and streamed through cameras, two pivotal moments of Rory McIlroy’s dominant 2022 are left strictly to the imagination. No one saw the first.
It came in San Antonio, at the Valero Texas Open, where McIlroy played for the first time in nine years. He missed the cut by two and struck it so questionably that he changed his golf ball the next week. An average if not solid (by his standards) season had culminated there, one week before the Masters. He was desperate to get out of town. Only he couldn’t get out of town. For travel reasons left unclear, the man worth more than a hundred million dollars — who literally pays to nullify the carbon footprint of his private flight habits — had to spend an extra night in the JW Marriott.
“Got back up to my hotel room and went to order room service and they said it will be a two-and-a-half-hour wait,” McIlroy said Sunday night. “So I basically missed the cut, went to bed on an empty stomach and I was like, let’s just wake up tomorrow and start again.”
McIlroy was kind enough to share that story on the heels of his first PGA Tour win of the new season at the CJ Cup, admitting that if someone would have told him during that hungry night that he’d be World No. 1 by October, he’d want to know what they were smoking. (His words, not ours!) The second pivotal moment wasn’t captured on phones either, but tucked into game stories from St. Andrews.
It’s true! Golf writers do serve some useful purpose. McIlroy was chased down by Cameron Smith, and in the moments following the 150th Open at the Home of Golf, McIlroy gave a typically thorough press conference. I was too busy watching Smith hoist the Claret Jug on the 18th green, but my colleagues in writing caught McIlroy as he left the press. He lumbered into a golf cart with his wife and agent and peeled off, another good-not-great major season in the books. Perhaps the greatest what-if of his golfing life.
Later that night, another scene captured exclusively in the written word by Alan Shipnuck of The Fire Pit Collective: Rory cradling his daughter, Poppy, looking out from the Rusacks Hotel on the battleground of the Old Course beneath him. He wasn’t over what happened that day, but he was getting over it the best way he knew how, not a camera in sight.
Today, McIlroy is likely in front of dozens of cameras at a TaylorMade commercial shoot down in Jupiter, Fla. It’s among the last things he’ll need to do for his golfing year, baked into the juicy contract of one of his purposefully small list of sponsors. His other remaining task will be the DP World Tour Championship next month in Dubai. After that, we’ll likely not see him until Hawaii in January at the earliest. (Well, we might see him on another TaylorMade Christmas card, depending on which direction Tuesday’s shoot goes.)
As he takes a step away from all those cameras for the majority of the next three months, it’s worth noting just how much McIlroy delivered as a pro golfer in 2022. He gave fans a healthy dose of everything we really want. And what is it we want? Firstly, we want to see success. McIlroy literally has played statistically the best golf of his life the last few months. His golf since that fateful, hungry Friday night in San Antonio has been consistently better than his previous peaks (2014, 2020).
We want to hear from our golf heroes, and we haven’t heard from any pro more than we’ve heard from McIlroy. He declared LIV Golf “dead in the water” back in February and ate his words months later. He dunked on Greg Norman when he won in Canada, reciting how his career win total was now one better than Norman’s. During the summer of pro golfers actually sharing what they really think, McIlroy shined. He gave us his true thoughts a lot of the time. He made a point to seek out reporters and tell his truth while plenty cowered away from contentious topics.
We heard from McIlroy so much that he inspired vitriol from LIV Golf supporters. We like seeing that, too: confidence in what you believe. McIlroy accepted the bullseye on his back, speaking at length and endlessly about the civil war within the game. He’s never flipped his core position, like so many pros have done this year. McIlroy has publicly stiff-armed the Saudi money for years now, dating back to March 2020. But he hasn’t shied away from admitting where compromise should take place. He’s not bipartisan by any means, but on the spectrum of some debate topics — see world ranking points — he can be pulled toward the center. An inspiration for us all this time of year.
As golf fans, we want to feel like we know the pros we sit on the couch and idolize for their prowess at hitting that little ball into that tiny hole. Golf journalists are often asked, “What’s he/she really like?” Those questions rarely involve McIlroy because no one really wonders. He often shows us exactly what he wants, what he doesn’t like; he explains his shortcomings like they’re sitting with you in the room and not some scary monster tucked away in a closet. The moments where he smiled widest this year? On the 18th hole at Augusta National and then six months later in driving rain during a pro-am with his father. If that’s not relatable enough, there was his emotional post-round interview with Todd Lewis Sunday afternoon.
McIlroy’s win and subsequent climb to world No. 1 conjured up and explanation not of arriving at some destination, but rather just another stop on a journey. There’s something extremely relatable in that, too. If you’ve made it this far in this story, you’re probably a golfer on your own journey as well. It’s the exact reason why the punishing game listed in the URL of this website is so addictive, rewarding, mind-bending, aggravating and ultimately valuable. Satisfying was McIlroy’s choice adjective for Sunday’s stop on the journey. “I never feel like I’ve figured this game out,” he said. “I don’t think I ever will figure it out, but every day I wake up trying to get closer.”
How many pros have sounded like that — exactly like you and I — after winning for the third time in five months? Lemme speak for golf fans at-large: more of that, please, in 2023.
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