Rory McIlroy, with just one word, is planning a new path. Here’s why

Rory McIlroy on Tuesday at Oak Hill Country Hill, site of this week's PGA Championship.

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Rory McIlroy, in an adopted hometown, was a complete stranger. 

“We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the first LIV Golf tournament. If you could look into your crystal ball three years from now, where do you think the professional game will be?” 

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. 

“You don’t want to speculate?” 

“No.” 

There was more. Or less. 

“You said after the Masters that you needed that break that you took. Having done so, has that sort of re-energized you? Obviously it was a good idea. Do you think that’s going to work in your favor this week?” 

“I don’t know,” McIlroy said. “I needed it at the time. Whether it works this week or not remains to be seen.” 

Maybe a rephrased LIV Golf question would work.

“You mentioned earlier about not having a crystal ball. Obviously we all asked you a lot of questions about LIV, and you’ve spoken yourself recently about the burden of that. Is it going to be a conscious thing for you going forward to try and sidestep that narrative?” 

“Yeah.” 

OK, that actually says a lot, despite, you know, being one word. 

To take a step back, you’ve met the other McIlroy, the eloquent, thoughtful and most definitely not abbreviated speaker on all things, golf and non-golf. And at times on Tuesday in his pre-PGA Championship press conference, that ghost reappeared, especially when talking about this upstate New York town, where his wife Erica hails from, and Oak Hill Country Club, where the PGA Championship is being played and where McIlroy is a member. He talked of the pride of the area, the Buffalo Bills. He dished on a local cuisine coined the Garbage Plate, which is served just as wonderfully as it sounds. (McIlroy has had it before, but just once.) 

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But then they started wondering about all of those other things, and it was as if someone hit McIlroy’s mute button. It was striking. Those answers above, after all, were from the same man who has led a year-long crusade against Saudi-backed LIV. Remember the jabs at Greg Norman? Who ultimately spearheaded change for his tour, the PGA Tour. Remember gathering a bunch of Tour stars last year in Delaware to plot a course for the future? All of that’s been a lot — and he’s openly expressed that in the past too.         

And at the Masters, McIlroy flamed out.

A pre-tournament favorite, he was done after two days. This time, he asked a question:

How?

Away from his press-conference scrum on Tuesday, with two reporters he was familiar with, McIlroy revealed that week was, in a word, shocking.

“I was never so sure that I was going to have a great week at Augusta,” he said.  

He said it again. 

“Never so sure.” 

He continued. 

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“Then that happened and it was a great lesson. It was a great lesson for me to not put too much into feelings or vibes or — shot five-under on the back nine on the Wednesday afternoon and felt great and everything was in a great spot. But that’s golf. And golf can be an imposter at times, as you said, and yeah, I think that’s when — that’s the chat I had with [sports psychologist Bob] Rotella the night before. It’s like, I feel so good. How can I not get ahead of myself? How — the game can bring you back down to earth quickly. 

“But I think the best way to deal with that is not let yourself get to that level of expectation so early, right? And that’s sort of what I’m trying to do. Just sort of take what the golf course gives me and hit good golf shots and, you know, just try to have a little bit more acceptance. Now that I think back to Augusta and maybe the last few months as well, the level of acceptance hasn’t been where it needs to be. And if I work on that and I do the right things, I know I’ll start to play some really good golf again.”

The week after the Masters, at the RBC Heritage, McIlroy withdrew. It wasn’t cheap. The move cost him $3 mill under the Tour’s bonus structure. It may have been surprising to you, but not to him. McIlroy needed a stop. He returned two weeks ago at the Wells Fargo Championship, made the cut but finished T47, which brings us back to Tuesday. 

And this sort-of new McIlroy, who may have left you asking: What did he do with the old guy?

Good question. 

He’s been thinking about that a lot. It’s here where we’ll first offer this, from Paul McGinley. Golf Digest’s Shane Ryan, in an excellent piece that you should read here, had asked the longtime pro at the 2020 Players Championship about McIlroy. 

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“Rory McIlroy’s a talker, too,” he said. “Does that help him all the time? I don’t think so. You guys love it. You guys tell him how great he is because he gives you lots of content. But does it help his competitiveness? Does it help competitiveness this week, when I saw the headline in the paper today, ‘Rory says America is behind in the coronavirus.’ Rory, why are you talking about the f***ing coronavirus? You’re here to win the f***ing TPC. … Forget about the coronavirus, that’s not your issue!”

And then the new McIlroy went deep on the old one. In very much an old-McIlroy way of speech. First the question, then his answer.

“A lot of agendas for the last while. And you’ve always embraced these things. You’re a smart guy. You have a desire to do the right thing. But is it time to be selfish about Rory, his golf and the fact that you are a winner and you want to get back in that winner’s circle?”

His first word was spoken loudly. 

“Absolutely.”

He continued. 

“Yeah, yeah. I’d rather people be talking about me because of my golf rather than stuff I’m doing behind the scenes or stuff that I’m saying in press conferences or whatever else.”

“So, absolutely,” he said, with emphasis this time. “I don’t regret anything that I’ve done because I think what’s been done has been really helpful and it will help the guys on Tour right now. It will help the next generation of players and hopefully have a better professional tour to play on and all that sort of stuff. 

“So I think the work that’s been has been really good, but now that the wheels have been set in motion, yeah, it’s just time to focus on me and focus on playing great golf.”

We’ve seen that McIlroy before.    

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Nick Piastowski

Nick Piastowski

Golf.com Editor

Nick Piastowski is a Senior Editor at Golf.com and Golf Magazine. In his role, he is responsible for editing, writing and developing stories across the golf space. And when he’s not writing about ways to hit the golf ball farther and straighter, the Milwaukee native is probably playing the game, hitting the ball left, right and short, and drinking a cold beer to wash away his score. You can reach out to him about any of these topics — his stories, his game or his beers — at nick.piastowski@golf.com.