KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — At first I thought Rory McIlroy was looking at me.
He was fielding the final question of his Tuesday press conference. I was standing dutifully at Podium No. 7, satisfied with an answer he’d just given to my question about caddie Harry Diamond. It didn’t really make sense that he was making eye contact, but then again I was wearing my favorite hat. Maybe he was admiring it?
But then McIlroy raised an eyebrow and gave a subtle little smirk. Something wasn’t adding up. I glanced behind me. Justin Thomas was standing there, waiting to take the stage next. Ah. That made more sense.
The final question asked of McIlroy was the perfect alley-oop pass for McIlroy to dunk on his buddy in the back. The voice of a reporter identified as “Lukas from Canada” came over the speakers via Zoom. He was asking about McIlroy’s 2012 victory at Kiawah.
“How big was that moment for you, winning your second major at that moment in your career?”
McIlroy started off his answer deadpan.
“Yeah, it was huge,” he said. Then he stared at Thomas.
“A lot of guys have won one major, but it’s a big hurdle to get to the second.” He had to pause to stop laughing. “So it was good to get that monkey off my back, especially here, playing so well. So yeah, it was a big deal. I definitely didn’t want to be stuck on one for a long time, so happy to get that second.”
He cracked up as the press conference ended and reporters began to disperse. Thomas came up to the stage, shaking his head as McIlroy gave him a hug.
“The worst part is I can’t even respond in mine, because he’s not going to be here to hear it,” he said.
There is, of course, no response that would suffice. McIlroy has four majors to his name: The 2011 U.S. Open, the 2012 PGA Championship, the 2014 Open Championship and the 2014 PGA. Thomas’ own major, the 2017 PGA, is nothing to scoff at — but in golf, major count is the ultimate trump card.
In Thomas’ press conference, he was given the floor to offer a response and half-heartedly jabbed back at his south Florida neighbor.
“I can’t really say too much, other than it’s great to see him win,” Thomas said. “I know it’s been a really long time for him, so I’m glad to see him win.”
That came in response to McIlroy’s 18-month hiatus from the winner’s circle before last week’s win at Quail Hollow. Thomas won three times over that span, including this year’s Players Championship. Still, he tempered the trash-talk with respect.
“But at the same time, I really don’t want to egg him on because usually when he wins he likes to reel some off, and with a lot of big tournaments coming up I don’t really want to poke the bear.”
All in good fun. McIlroy, Thomas and Brooks Koepka — another major champion — are in a group together the first two rounds. If Koepka wants, he could get the last laugh by pointing out that he’s won four majors just since 2017.
But all three will be gunning to add to their total this week.