Rory McIlroy, the Tour’s big star, won the Tour’s big event. He knows the symbolism.

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy on Sunday on the 18th green at East Lake Golf Club.

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Rory McIlroy, having just won in this fashion, was asked why he thrives as “the chaser.” He was ready for this one. To use a golf term, he couldn’t have been teed up any better.  

“Because I think out of anyone in the field, I care the least about the money,” he said. “That’s probably it.”

You know what he meant. You know what he was also referring to. Say what you will, but the wit was good, especially if you knew what he just spent all day grinding through.  

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This is McIlroy’s universe now, and he seemingly likes the fit. He’s the PGA Tour’s biggest star. He’s the Tour’s biggest proponent. And Sunday, the PGA Tour’s biggest star and its biggest proponent won its biggest event, the Tour Championship, in a big way, rallying from six down to start the final round. That’s always good business. But even if you’ve been just casually following your golf news, you know the symbolism here. The established Tour is also in an existential fight against LIV Golf, an upstart, and McIlroy’s Sunday was, well, big.  

None of this is lost on the man himself, either. You know, actions speaking louder than words and all that. 

“Yeah, I’ve been in the thick of things, he said Sunday night. “I guess every chance I get, I’m trying to defend what I feel is the best place to play elite professional golf in the world. It’s in some ways fitting that I was able to get this done today to sort of round off a year that has been very, very challenging and different.”

His mantle is layered. There have been jabs, like the one above, a veiled reference to LIV and its carrots of guaranteed money and large purses to Tour players, and we’ll get to another one in a sec. And all that makes for fun headlines and sound bites. But there’s substance, too. Last week, he and Tiger Woods — yes, that Tiger Woods — led a players-only meeting to plot a course. This week, McIlroy watched from the back of the room as Tour commissioner Jay Monahan described a swath of changes, most of which were presumably birthed in the meeting. He took to the podium, too, to say that he and Woods were partnering in a future indoor golf series, co-sanctioned by the Tour. 

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Then he went to the office and shot rounds of 67, 67, 63, 66 and became the first ever to win three Tour playoffs. In two weeks, he’ll play across the pond, in the BMW PGA Championship, where over a dozen LIV golfers will also be playing, and presumably McIlroy will have to act as PGA Tour star-PGA Tour proponent all over again. All of which may make you wonder:

Does it wear 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,” McIlroy said. “I really do. I hate what it’s 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 of them 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.”

In fact, he said, all of this may actually be helping his golf. 

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“So yeah, in a way, it’s my life,” McIlroy said. “I don’t really know any different. In all honesty, golf has been the escape for me over the last few weeks. It’s been, I get inside the ropes, no one can get to me, and it’s my escape from this other stuff that’s going on.

“But yeah, I mean, I guess I’m able to switch on and off pretty well, and I can compartmentalize things, and whatever we’re talking about … before we go out to play, I can leave it there and go and just try to focus on the task at hand.

“I’ve had to learn that the hard way over the years, too, but I’ve had a lot of experience, and this is my 15th year on Tour. I have a lot of good experiences, bad experiences, things to learn from, and I think just all of that combined helps me sort of navigate where we are right now.”

Can it continue? Stay tuned. All of this being said, yes, the golfer would rather just play golf, and he believed Sunday that all of this may eventually settle. But until then, McIlroy will shepherd on. 

So back to the other jab we promised. It’s petty, but here it is.  

McIlroy had hit his second shot on Sunday on the par-4 16th at East Lake Golf Club over the green, then scorched a chip on, only for it to hit the pin and finish 7 feet away. From there, he parred, Scheffler bogeyed, and McIlroy was the leader for the first time. 

And LIV Golf plays 54-hole events. 

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Here was the exchange:  

“I did want to ask you about that chip on 16, if you don’t mind,” the reporter asked. “What were you hoping for, and what did you see when it was coming out?

“Yeah, it came out a little hot and a little further left than — a little hot and a little further left than I wanted it to,” McIlroy said. “With whatever way the green was, it was obviously very lucky to hit the pin, but I thought for — I was certain it was going to miss the hole on the left-hand side. But just sort of the grain held it and it hit the pin, and it obviously ended up being closer than it would have.

“But I took advantage of that little break with a good putt to make par there, and that was the first time in the whole tournament that I had the outright lead. On the 70th hole is a nice time to take the lead of a golf tournament.

“Yeah, or the 52nd hole if you play somewhere else.”

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