At this PGA, every conversation starts with one man: Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy walks golf course at 2024 PGA Championship

Rory McIlroy looks on during the Tuesday's practice day at Valhalla Golf Club.

Getty Images

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Rory McIlroy must have felt young Sunday night, having just thumped another field of players mostly born in the 90s. But by the time he reached Valhalla, for this week’s PGA Championship, he should have felt old again. We should all feel a bit old returning here, to the site of his last major conquest.

A full decade has passed since the golf world was last here, where Indiana meets Kentucky, when McIlroy at Dusk happened, when he was a freewheeling golf savage fresh off gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated. (Maybe that’s what dates August 2014 the most — that golf’s newest star was all over a weekly sports magazine.) 

It may feel obvious to point out that McIlroy is a different person now, but even that feels a bit cheap. We’re all different people now. Take his biggest competition that week. 

Phil Mickelson, then 45 years old, was among the most universally beloved golfers. That, of course, has changed. He had not yet torched Tom Watson’s Ryder Cup captaincy. He had not yet won the PGA at Kiawah Island, setting records that will likely never be broken. He had not yet committed his future to LIV Golf. In 2014, Mickelson had just begun addressing a gambling addiction.

From the pairing ahead of McIlroy that fateful Sunday, Mickelson openly applauded his playing partner, Rickie Fowler, then a 26-year-old heartthrob, best known for his hair style and monochromatic outfits. And soon to be posting Women Crush Wednesday for his supermodel girlfriend. (A lot of us posted like that back then.)

Pro golfer rory mcilroy drops wanamaker trophy at 2014 PGA championship.
Rory, Rickie, Phil and a trophy fumble. Remembering Valhalla, 10 years later
By: James Colgan

Mickelson and Fowler fist-bumped from the heat of contention on a major championship Sunday, which stunned McIlroy in the group behind them. But why not? They had stolen the lead from the undisputed best player on the planet. And Fowler wasn’t far behind McIlroy. The summer of 2014 could have been known as the Summer of Rickie had McIlroy never been born. Fowler finished in the top 5 of every major championship that season, just one of five players to do that, all-time. The main difference is, all the others have gone on to actually win a major. Ten years later, Fowler not only hasn’t done it, but he’s suffered a serious dip in form, risen out of it, only to begin a serious dip once again. DataGolf ranks him 88th in the world. 

The fourth member of that Valhalla good times band was Henrik Stenson, nuking his 3-wood all over the property. Stenson has arguably lived the best existence since 2014. He’s become an all-time great in his home country. He’s become an Olympic medalist. He became a major champion, beating Mickelson at Troon in 2016. And he signed a contract for many millions of dollars to ride out his waning years with LIV Golf. Only that decision cost him the dream of captaining a Ryder Cup team and also quietly sent him to court with a sponsor who felt he had damaged their agreement. 

Maybe that’s the takeaway from a decade gone by. Life for pro golfers can be much choppier than we’d think. (McIlroy himself filed for divorce this week, according to Circuit Court records of Palm Beach County.) But that might be why (re)visiting major championship sites on a 10-year cadence feels best. It allows for just enough similarities to tie generations together, and just enough change that almost everything about it feels entirely new. Mr. Nike himself, Brooks Koepka, wore FootJoy clothes last time we were here. Native Kentuckian Justin Thomas was on the developmental tour. Scottie Scheffler was getting ready to move into the dorms as a freshman at the University of Texas. Hell, even this golf course is owned by different people these days. They changed the names of all the holes, added tees, changed the grasses. Change, change, change. 

McIlroy is where it all falls apart. At least on paper. He was ranked No. 1 in the world then. He’s ranked No. 2 in the world now. During the 499 weeks in between, he’s been in the top 16 always. Every single week. He was 1st in Strokes Gained then; is 3rd in Strokes Gained now. Seventh in clubhead speed then, 7th in clubhead speed now. 

McIlroy will tell you he’s a better golfer now. That 10 years worth of nuance and dexterity in his game have increased his ability to win different tournaments on different courses. And he’d be right about that. His brilliant 2-iron in the gales at the Scottish Open last summer was the clinching shot of the year. But all that probably doesn’t matter this week. The truth is, this is the kind of course Young McIlroy would devour. And did. And a lot has changed, sure, but it’s still the kind of course that Older McIlroy should devour, too. He wins on big, long golf courses where you can hit driver everywhere and stop the ball where it lands, with any club in the bag. That’s Valhalla, especially with the rain coming down this week. No one was surprised at it back in 2014. We’d only be slightly surprised were it to happen this week. 

So, what does it matter that 10 years have passed, if you’re still at the peak of your powers? Well, a lot of other things are going on, too, coloring every step McIlroy takes this week, and poses a bit of a Rorschach test for any of those who dare to opine on the 35-year-old’s chances to make magic again.

Does it matter if his relationship with Tiger Woods has changed in recent months, and that Woods had to answer a question about it Tuesday? Does it matter that his confidant Jimmy Dunne surprisingly ejected from the Tour Policy Board Monday night? Does it matter that McIlroy filed for divorce this week? Maybe! But probably not. He played his best golf of his season the day before filing for divorce, so he can probably play his best golf days after it, too. 

Does anything ancillary to the golf matter if this specific individual — one of the greatest golfers of all time — feels newly capable of finding peace on the course amid all the noise off it?

“I don’t mind it,” McIlroy told us Sunday night. “I’ve always been able to compartmentalize pretty well. I seem to for whatever reason play very good golf whenever I have a lot of stuff going on. I don’t know if it’s — I need that just to really — when I get on the course really focus on what I’m doing out there. But yeah, it seems to work.” 

We’re about to find out. 

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.

Watch, play, win. Chirp Golf is your home for the best of real money Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) and Free-To-Play games.

Watch, play, win

Chirp Golf is your home for the best of real money Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS) and Free-To-Play games. Featuring simple to play. easy to learn, and fun games. Chirp Golf has something for every golf fan.

Scan to Download:

Google Play Apple Store