Rory McIlroy isn’t talking about the story on everyone’s mind

rory mcilroy smizes at PGA Championship press conference in oatmeal hoodie

Rory McIlroy speaks with the press on PGA Championship Wednesday.

Getty Images/David Cannon

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The biggest question in the PGA Championship press tent Wednesday was a new one … and also one as old as journalism itself.

How much privacy should a public figure be afforded?

That Rory McIlroy would be at the center of this debate would have surprised just about every reporter at Valhalla Golf Club this week. McIlroy has been public-facing to a fault over the first 15 years of his professional life, willing to speak on all topics, cover all corners and leave no stones unturned in his engagements with the press. Over the years, those convenes have grown so personal and probing that many a pundit has wondered if McIlroy has been too open and generous with his time, costing him shots during tournament play.

After McIlroy has spent the better part of three years exposing the darkest, tenderest and thorniest corners of pro golf, the suggestion even a few days ago that he would suddenly find himself as the face of a story too sensitive for public consumption seemed unfathomable. But then the news broke Tuesday afternoon that McIlroy had filed for divorce from Erica Stoll, his wife of seven years and mother of their three-year-old daughter, Poppy.

Though McIlroy did not owe anyone an explanation, there was some speculation that he would broach the subject himself on Wednesday afternoon at Valhalla, where he was scheduled to meet the press. McIlroy surely understood the timing of his legal proceedings meant that he would face questions on the matter. Addressing the divorce head-on and taking no further questions might also serve to temper the steady stream of TMZ and Daily Mail headlines.

A crowd of more than 50 media members jammed into the interview room around 1 p.m. local time, just before McIlroy was scheduled to arrive. It was by far the largest gathering of tournament week, dwarfing the audience even for Tiger Woods’ Tuesday press conference. A buzz hung in the air as McIlroy settled in at the podium.

And then, a few seconds before the first question arrived, a PGA of America media official made an announcement.

“Rory will not be making comments about his personal life,” the official said. “We thank you all for observing his wishes.”

The 10 minutes of question-and-answer that followed with McIlroy were mostly unremarkable. The only query that even hinted at McIlroy’s breakup came from Barstool Sports’ Dan Rapaport.

Just on a personal note, how are you doing?

McIlroy paused.

“I’m ready to play this week.”

When his time was up, McIlroy shuffled away from the podium just as quickly as he’d arrived.

A strange quiet lingered for a moment after he disappeared. For the first time since the news surfaced, and for one of the rare times in McIlroy’s public life, there would be no more to the story. At least not on this day. No details of what happened, no earnest or heartfelt comments, not even an acknowledgment of the major life event from McIlroy himself. The closest the four-time major winner came to addressing the subject came in a brief statement his team gave to the Irish Independent, who said McIlroy “will not be making any further comment” and “stressed Rory’s desire to ensure this difficult time is as respectful and amicable as possible.”

As the press filtered out of the room, the muted vibe was a reminder of the first and most important rule of sports celebrity: Athletes do not belong to the media. Though we might delude ourselves — fans and press alike — into believing that mega-stars owe us a lens into their private lives in exchange for the many millions we help them earn, they don’t. Not Tiger, nor Phil, nor even Rory McIlroy, whose oratory gifts have at times blurred those lines.

An athlete’s choice to give themself in the public eye is ultimately just that, and our right to see the things that happen between the ropes does not equate to a right to understand what happens outside of them. That might not feel satisfying, particularly on a week when the biggest story is the one we know the least about, but it is the truth.

It was the first message Rory’s Wednesday at the PGA — and might as well be the final one:

Just because we get to know him doesn’t mean we get to know everything.

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