Rory McIlroy is in contention again. This time, he says it’s different

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland walks onto the green on the 18th hole during the third round of the RBC Canadian Open at Oakdale Golf & Country Club on June 10, 2023 in Toronto, Ontario.

McIlroy says if he wins Sunday, it will be for him.

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What a difference a week makes. In the case of Rory McIlroy, it’s not only a week but a year too.

One week ago, McIlroy played his way into a share of the 54-hole lead at the Memorial but he faded in the final round. He was unable to shake a winless drought that dates to October as he seemed to begin struggling under the weight of being the PGA Tour’s defacto spokesperson in its battle against LIV Golf.

But, you could argue that weight was never greater than exactly a year ago.

Last year’s RBC Canadian Open was held the same week as the launch of LIV Golf. McIlroy played his way into a share of the lead going and a star-studded final-round pairing with Tony Finau and Justin Thomas with a 65 on Saturday.

They were three of the biggest names the PGA Tour could have asked for to be in contention during that week. Then McIlroy made it an even more perfect ending for “Team PGA Tour” by shooting 62 to beat Finau by two. He also took the opportunity in his interview immediately following play to dunk on Greg Norman — but we don’t need to get into that.

Like it would be this week, that win was the first of the calendar year and he ended up going on a run through the end of the season and lifting the FedEx Cup amid one of the most turbulent times the game had ever seen.

Now a similar somewhat script is playing out this week at the same event, albeit on a different course and a much different landscape of professional golf.

On Tuesday of this week, the battle between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf may have ended. In an announcement no one saw coming, the PGA Tour announced it, the DP World Tour and the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, the financial backers of LIV Golf, will combine their commercial operations into a new entity. What that means exactly, not even McIlroy knows for sure yet, but in March he said he wanted “to get back to being a golfer.” This seemingly allows him to do that.

“I felt like last year the win wasn’t just for me it was for a few other things,” McIlroy said Saturday evening at this year’s Canadian Open. “But this one, this year, if I were able to get over the line, will be solely for me.”

McIlroy’s week at the Canadian Open has still been anything but normal.

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He found out about the stunning deal just hours before it was announced, then sat through what has been described as a “heated” players’ meeting where he reportedly told another player to “play better.” Then, as he has so many times over the past two years, he gave a pre-tournament press conference where he was asked to react to an extremely complex and unfinished deal that he was only filled in on 24 hours earlier.

Many of his answers took a somewhat defeatist tone. That’s understandable. For tournament after tournament after tournament, he was asked about LIV Golf and each time he went to bat for the PGA Tour. He said the announcement made him feel as if he was the “sacrificial lamb.

But once he finished his press conference, it was over for him. He had a title to defend.

“Once we all get done here and you write your stories and say what you say what I say or quote me or whatever it is, I’m going to go to the range and do some practice and try to get ready for a golf tournament,” he said.

At this year’s RBC Canadian Open, on a different course at Oakdale Golf and Country Club, McIlroy birdied the first hole of the tournament the next day. However, his opening round ended as an uninspiring one-under 71.

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He hasn’t made a bogey since.

After Friday 67, McIlroy went bogey-free Saturday again, his only mistake coming as a three-putt par on the par-5 18th. His 66 put him at 12 under and when the third round wrapped up, that ended up in a six-way tie for second, two strokes behind C.T. Pan.

But make no mistake, this is Rory McIlroy’s tournament to win or lose — at least that’s what Vegas thinks — as McIlroy, the pre-tournament favorite, enters the final round with 3-to-1 odds to win or better at most of the major U.S. Sportsbooks.

He knows this week has been big for the sport, perhaps the biggest ever. But he’s using the golf course as a sort of escape as he seeks a three-peat at the Canadian Open. Only three golfers in the last 40 years have won three times in a row at the same event (Tiger Woods did do it at six different events).

“For whatever reason I seem to play better when there’s a little bit of noise going in the world of golf,” McIlroy said. “It’s really nice to get inside the ropes and just concentrate on my job at the end of the day, which is trying to get the ball around the golf course.”

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It’s not quite the same situation on the course as last year given that he’s chasing Pan, along with five others. It’s also certainly not the same situation off the course. But there’s still something that makes it somewhat of deja vu for McIlroy.

“It feels eerily similar to the last two tournaments,” he said. “I was tied for the lead with Webb [Simpson] at Hamilton in 2019. Then last year with Tony and JT. Looks like there could be a lot of guys up around the lead tomorrow. So it’s going to be really interesting day.”

Win or lose, however, it will be all McIlroy this time.

Jack Hirsh Editor

Jack Hirsh is an assistant editor at GOLF. A Pennsylvania native, Jack is a 2020 graduate of Penn State University, earning degrees in broadcast journalism and political science. He was captain of his high school golf team and recently returned to the program to serve as head coach. Jack also still *tries* to remain competitive in local amateurs. Before joining GOLF, Jack spent two years working at a TV station in Bend, Oregon, primarily as a Multimedia Journalist/reporter, but also producing, anchoring and even presenting the weather. He can be reached at