Rory McIlroy has been asked many questions. But this one made him almost cry.
Walk a few feet this week at St. Andrews, and you’ll run into it. Listen, and someone will tell you about it. Shoot, log on to the Open Championship’s website, and it’s all over the page. One-hundred-and-fifty. That’s the number of times they’ve been playing this thing. That’s a lot. Or, more notably, that’s history.
He’s as much a part of the historical discussion as anyone these days, it seems. Majors. No majors. LIV Golf. No LIV Golf. Et cetera. Though, one layer to it almost brought the proud Rory McIlroy to tears. You’d be wise to grab a tissue yourself actually. There also may be some kind of lesson in all of it, too, but who’s to say.
The exchange came Monday afternoon, in an innocent-enough TV interview during the Celebration of Champions, a four-hole event at St. Andrews that, yes, celebrated previous Open champions. And McIlroy was grouped with Tiger Woods, Lee Trevino and Georgia Hall, the 2018 Women’s Open champ.
“As a young boy, in primary school, you did a project on a hero and inspiration of yours, a Mr. T. Woods,” on-course analyst Tim Barter said.
Before Barter even finished, McIlroy was smiling.
“Yeah,” McIlroy said.
“Is it almost surreal now to be a good friend of his, to be a fellow Open champion and to be out here in this amazing event playing with him?” Barter said.
McIlroy took a deep breath, then answered.
“Um, yeah, sort of …
There was a pause here.
“A little bit emotional in a way,” he continued, his voice cracking.
“Uh, yeah, it’s incredible to think … just … if you were to tell 10-year-old Rory back then that you would be doing this, I wouldn’t have believed you so to get my name on the Claret Jug, um, to be as close as I am with my hero growing up and to be a part of something like this — you know, going to the, you know, doing this with Lee Trevino, Georgia Hall, you know, all the great champions that are gathered here today, to do the Champions Dinner tomorrow in the R&A clubhouse, um, where you have Jack Nicklaus, you know, on the 1st tee, it just, it’s sort of pinch-yourself moments.
“Uh, and it’s just really, really cool, and I’m so privileged and humbled to be a part of it all.”
Good stuff, right? There’s a saying about roses and stopping to smell them, and this is that. We should all do it, if we can. And hey, even the man McIlroy’s been most aligned with, the player who’s been most associated with achievement has been getting into the act.
If you’re also thinking that Woods is acting, shall we say, just plain differently recently, you’re not alone. How else to explain the 15-time major champion, the self-described grinder … putting golf balls at McIlroy on Monday on the St. Andrews putting green? Or … teasing Justin Thomas on camera on Sunday over having never won an Open? Some of this has to do with the moment: Ask any player this week about playing at the Home of Golf, and they become as happy as the Old Course is old. And there’s no doubt Woods is just happy to be here after his events over the past year-plus.
But maybe the biggest part, McIlroy believes, is that at 46, Woods is starting to take stock of things.
“I’ve gotten to know Tiger very well over the past decade or more, and he’s like that in private moments, more so than anyone really thinks,” McIlroy said Tuesday during his pre-tournament press conference. “But I think he’s just maybe showing that side a little more, that side of himself a little more to the public over these last few years.
“And as his career is sort of — winding down, I guess you could say — I think he now appreciates everything that he’s got done in the game. I think Tiger’s mindset has always been, OK, onto the next one, onto the next one, onto the next one.
“I think, especially after the Masters in ’19, for him to just sit back and reflect on what a career it’s been, I think he maybe appreciates it all just a bit more now, and that’s part of the reason that you’re seeing that sort of lightness and more joyful person on the golf course, I guess.”
Back to McIlroy. At 33, is he at such a reflection point? Yes. And no. It’s a little bit of both. But who’s to say you can’t appreciate where you’ve been, and look forward to more? And as he looks to win a major this week for the first time in eight years, that makes for a notable combination.
McIlroy was also asked this question by a reporter: “Rory, you were talking earlier how maybe Tiger is relishing his achievements even more now as he looks back. I appreciate that you’re at a different stage of your career, but as the wait goes on for another major, do you find yourself looking back more fondly on your achievements? And also does that weight make you more determined to get your hands on another major?”
“I’m certainly not at the reminiscing point of my career yet,” McIlroy said. “I’m very proud of my achievements, and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in the game, but I know that there’s still a lot more that I want to achieve and a lot more that I can achieve.
“I look back fondly on what I’ve done so far, but I still feel like I’ve got another decade or more of really good golf left in me. So, yeah, I’m firmly looking ahead and trying to make the most of however long left I’ve got in this game.”