Rory McIlroy’s wild 6 weeks ranged from heartbreak to heroism (and so much more)
In the days after his heartbreak at the Open Championship, the images played back in Rory McIlroy’s mind.
“That night was tough,” he said at his next start in Memphis, reflecting on the major championship he’d nearly won. Another major championship he’d nearly won. “It probably took me three or four days to get back to myself again.”
He was comforted by the fact that he’d played well, navigating the Old Course without a final-round bogey, falling victim to Cameron Smith’s stunning 64. Still, he kept revisiting the putts that had slid by and the up-and-downs he’d wished he’d made — at 9, at 12, at 14 — as the claret jug slipped from his grasp.
He headed from St. Andrews to London with his wife Erica and their daughter Poppy to escape from it all.
“I took two weeks off, didn’t touch a club, didn’t see the inside of a gym, probably didn’t eat a vegetable,” McIlroy said. But neither carbs nor regret filled the void. There was nothing to do but get on with it.
So that’s what McIlroy did.
First there was the small matter of securing the PGA Tour’s future. He was in regular communication with Tiger Woods, collaborating on how to build on the meeting they’d held with a small group of players at the JP McManus Pro-Am. They needed buy-in from those pros and others, too, so they needed a plan to appease the PGA Tour’s loyalists and sway those on the fence. McIlroy felt some top pros were being turned without seeing the full picture. He reached out to Smith, who he feared was leaving for LIV, to offer congratulations but also to lay out the case for him to stay. He helped organize another meeting for the week of the BMW, players only, where Woods would fly in to demonstrate his commitment.
There was also the matter of McIlroy’s golf. His unofficial appointment to PGA Tour spokesman has carried significant weight, but to be the Tour’s alpha dog, your game has to keep pace. Speaking out had energized him at the Canadian Open, where he’d won in dramatic fashion, and McIlroy is among the most popular athletes in any sport, but his critics seize on his freewheeling nature at the microphone. Speaking out invites continual scrutiny and criticism — even if it’s uninteresting criticism. Less talk, more practice. Meh. Still, McIlroy gave his enemies some fodder when he showed up to the first round of the playoffs without his best stuff. He missed the cut.
The work continued. Erica and Poppy were at their family cabin in upstate New York, but if McIlroy joined them he’d be unable to play, so he and caddie Harry Diamond headed to Delaware, site of the following week’s BMW Championship. After a few days’ practice, he helped lead the player meeting — dutifully acknowledging that Woods was the “alpha in the room” — and secured buy-in from pros like Cameron Young, Adam Scott and Rickie Fowler, all of whom had previously expressed interest in LIV. He finished T8. Progress on both fronts.
McIlroy arrived in Atlanta for a busy week at the season finale. He played a practice round with Joaquin Niemann, another potential defector. He stood in the back of the room as commissioner Jay Monahan addressed the media, presenting a vision for the Tour’s new super-structure. And then he took the podium to face questions about his role in getting the Tour to ratify structural changes on an emergency timeline.
“I never in a million years thought that I would be in this position, and in particular in this position doing this stuff with Tiger Woods,” he said. He brought in a business partner to explain the future of TMRW, the company he and Woods has started together, which was introducing a stadium-style Tour add-on series set to begin in 2024, enriching himself, Woods and the rest of the participants in the process. And then he tried to get ready for the tournament.
“As much as I’m a willing participant in all of this, I sometimes do need to remove myself for the sake of my golf game, and I tried to do that,” he said. This was hardly a throwaway event, after all. This was the Tour Championship, the culmination of the FedEx Cup Playoffs. He’d been fighting to preserve the PGA Tour, and this was a significant piece of that Tour.
So of course, 72 holes later, it was Rory McIlroy holding the FedEx Cup trophy. Of course it was! Along the way it felt unlikely for several reasons — his opening triple bogey, his six-shot final-round deficit, the fact that the guy in the lead was World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler — but in hindsight it felt inevitable.
This has become McIlroy’s curse, after all. This is what he does. Heartbreak and heroism are elemental to his being, residing within him in close quarters. Think back to his disappointment at the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open, where he contended but faded. And then think back to the tournament sandwiched in between, the Canadian Open, when the Tour was under siege and McIlroy spoke out in its favor and then fired a final-round 62 to win — and pass Greg Norman’s victory total in the process.
Think back to the Masters, where he held the early lead, seemingly played his way out of the tournament and then played his way back in with a Sunday 64 to finish solo second, close enough to wonder what if.
Think back to the beginning of McIlroy’s season, when he got beaten and then benched at an emotional Ryder Cup, questioning himself and lamenting the passage of time. And then think to the next tournament he played, the CJ Cup, which he won.
Think all the way back to 2019, the last time McIlroy was playing this well and this consistently. He showed up at the Open Championship in Northern Ireland with the weight of the nation on his shoulders. He missed the cut. A week later he suffered the further indignity of being outdueled by World No. 1 Brooks Koepka. But when the two faced off at East Lake just weeks later it was McIlroy who came away with the trophy.
This is McIlroy’s dilemma. It’s often unclear whether he’s golf’s hero or tragic hero; he’s endlessly talented, hard-working, swashbuckling and he wins nearly every prize with ease, but those that he wants the most — namely the major championships — continue to elude him.
There is also some dark irony to McIlroy’s victory. He has championed the PGA Tour as the top circuit because of its tradition and legacy, but the FedEx Cup doesn’t have a particularly meaningful history. In fact, critiques of the FedEx Cup overlap with critiques of LIV: it’s contrived, it’s a money grab, it’s hollow, the rules change all the time and so on. And because McIlroy has decried LIV as a short-term cash-grab, there’s some irony to him winning the Tour Championship’s $18 million prize, the single richest in the world.
But weaponizing those critiques is mostly missing the point. McIlroy’s win was significant not because of his monetary gain but because of his emotional investment. He has put his own chips on the table, investing his time and betting his reputation on the PGA Tour’s future. McIlroy’s no martyr; he’s a well-liked, well-compensated golfer who certainly stands to gain if the Tour does well. But he’s also chosen to put himself out there and to shoulder as much of a league’s burden as he can. That’s a different kind of pressure.
After the event McIlroy was asked if it ever wears on him.
“No, I don’t think so, because if you believe in something I think you have to speak up, and I believe very strongly about this. I really do,” he said. “I hate what [LIV] is doing to the game of golf. I hate it. I really do. Like it’s going to be hard for me to stomach going to Wentworth in a couple of weeks’ time and seeing 18 [LIV players] there. That just doesn’t sit right with me.
“So yeah, I feel strongly. I believe what I’m saying are the right things, and I think when you believe that what you’re saying is the right things, you’re happy to stick your neck out on the line.”
That’s a risk his peers haven’t taken to the same extent. But it’s why McIlroy won big on Sunday. It was significant because he placed a big bet and then won even bigger. Sports are important because of tradition and history and legacy, too. But they can be something simpler: One guy saying he’s the best and stepping into the arena to prove it.
For months, Rory McIlroy has been acting like he’s the golfer you should listen to. On Sunday he left no doubt.
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