Why Rory McIlroy expressed empathy for Rickie Fowler on Sunday

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Rickie Fowler of the United States prepare to tee off on the 16th tee during the first round of the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club on August 10, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Pals McIlroy and Fowler at the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. On Sunday, they met again, at the CJ Cup.

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It was High Noon on a football Sunday in fall in Las Vegas, and it seemed like old times. There they were, two former wunderkinds — Rors and Rick, both now 32 — strolling down the first fairway of a Tom Fazio development course called the Summit Club.

They continue, as they have since their amateur days together, to swing fast, walk fast and play fast. Their body dimensions are similar, too, each man, amazingly, a few inches under six feet. Both Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler are semi-newish husbands and both are likely set for life for mechanical watches and foreign-born cars, as long as they wind the stems and change the oil. They were in the day’s last group in Vegas, trying to do a difficult thing, win on the PGA Tour.

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Fowler, with his Olympic rings tattoo on his right forearm, was leading the tournament, the CJ Cup, moved to Nevada from South Korea, because of the pandemic. Fowler was trying to win on Tour for the first time since Phoenix (the Waste Management Phoenix Open) in January 2019, when Johnny Miller made his final appearance in an NBC broadcast booth. On Sunday in Vegas, Fowler was the 54-hole leader and McIlroy, two shots back, was his closest pursuer.

They’ve known each other forever. They see each other at all the better tournaments, among other places. They’re friends. McIlroy could have played in the 2016 Olympics, but chose not to. Fowler, who did, has told McIlroy all about what he missed. This year, McIlroy played in the Olympics. Fowler watched on TV.

McIlroy came out on top at the CJ Cup but he also had an interest in how Fowler played.

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Rory crossed an ocean to settle in Jupiter, Fla., drawn by the warm weather and the tax climate, too. (The Sunshine State has no state income tax.) Rickie crossed a continent to settle there. (Weather-and-taxes, weather-and-taxes, the Florida siren song for Tour players.) Both men live in mansions. They live large. But they also maintain a soupçon of modesty. It’s amazing to consider, where their games, in concert with their personalities, have taken them.

OK, Rory’s better at golf. It’s a thin line, thinner than a razor. Fowler has played in 46 Grand Slam events and is still looking to win one. McIlroy is four-for-51 in majors. Each player has won at TPC Sawgrass, so each has a place in the winners-only locker room there. 

Both are semi-fixtures at various posh South Florida golf clubs, including Medalist and the Bear’s Club and Seminole. Fowler found his way to Seminole as a guest of Buddy Marucci, a longtime member and his captain on the 2007 Walker Cup team. Rory played in that Walker Cup, held at Royal County Down, near his childhood home, outside Belfast. That was the golf course of young Rory’s dreams, shimmering and on the Irish Sea. Rory played at an inland, hillside course called Holywood, where his father, Gerry, sometimes tended the bar. All these years later, Gerry, loaded with personality and game and brogue, is a member of Seminole, too. When live professional golf made its first tentative return to the airwaves, two months into the pandemic, McIlroy and Fowler were carrying their bags at Seminole, alongside Dustin Johnson and Matthew Wolff, in a glamorous made-for-TV charity match. May 2020.

Let’s go further back. Can you remember the summer of ’14? It was just seven years ago, seven years and change, though it seems longer, doesn’t it? McIlroy and Fowler would likely agree with that. In July 2014, McIlroy won the British Open, at Hoylake, and Fowler finished in a tie for second, two shots behind him. The next month, at the PGA Championship, at Valhalla, McIlroy won again, two shots ahead of Fowler, who finished third. These long, fruitful PGA Tour careers — they’re all tangled and entwined. If you want to play six degrees, knock yourself out. Google has done less fruitful things.

The CJ Cup, to be technical about it, is the first event of the 2021-22 golf season. Yep, it’s the opener. Happy new year. On Sunday, McIlroy went out in 33, three under par. That sounds better than it is. Fowler went out in 35. That doesn’t sound terrible. But on a birdie-fest course, in perfect conditions, when you’re trying to win and guys are going low all over the place? It’s half a nightmare.

Fowler didn’t have it, on Sunday. Collin Morikawa did. (He shot a final-round 62, was in the house early at 24 under par, looking to see if somebody could top him.) Rory had it enough. His Sunday 66 was sufficient for a one-shot win, his 20th on the PGA Tour. He beat Morikawa by a shot and Fowler, who finished in a tie for third, by three.

“Today, I just had a couple swings that got me out of position,” Fowler said when it was over.

“I was keeping an eye on him,” McIlroy said. Such a charming thing to say.

It can’t be easy, going straight to a mic, when something you wanted has just slipped away from you. I don’t mean that the win slipped away. You can’t, of course, control what other players do in golf. More the feeling of being in control of your ball for four straight days.

“I had to take an unplayable lie, and then I had a couple three-putts,” Fowler said. “Struggled a bit on the greens, with feel and speed. So really, all in all, you factor that in, miss a couple opportunities coming down the last couple, we’re only three shots back of Rory. So a lot of good stuff. Obviously disappointed, but this is a big step in the right direction, with where we’ve been in the last two years.”

Rickie has cited Rory’s name before. He’ll likely do it again. Sometimes guys sound like they’re swallowing glass when they cite the name of the winner. You can make your own guesses, regarding that. Fowler didn’t sound like that at all.

In Rory’s winner’s press conference, Sunday night from Vegas, the last question was about Rickie, and you could hear the empathy in Rory’s voice. It’s one of the many things that makes McIlroy a special figure in the game, his connection to other players.

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“He’s close,” McIlroy said. “He’s not that far away. I think everyone’s seen how he played this week. Obviously, things didn’t quite go his way today, but he didn’t hit it—”

Bad might have been the word he was looking for, but he wasn’t going to go there. He quit the sentence and changed gears.

“I was keeping an eye on him,” McIlroy said. Such a charming thing to say. “Rickie’s a close friend of mine and I want to see him do well, so I was keeping a close eye on his game today as well, just to see how he played. There were maybe a couple of loose shots in there. But the 5-iron he hit into 11 was all I needed to see. He hit an awesome 5-iron into 11, and to play a shot like that in the final round with pressure and still having a chance to win, I think that means his game’s coming around. All I needed to see was that one shot on 11. It was a pure golf shot. If he can keep repeating that swing, he’ll be back to where he wants to be.”

It was a 249-yard drawing 5-iron to a back-left pin on a par-3 that finished hole-high and 15 feet right of the pin. Unfortunately, for Fowler, he missed the birdie putt. In golf, good shots must come in groups of two. Maybe the rest of the afternoon would have been different, had he holed it. But he didn’t.

Rory had done what a friend does. He found something Rickie, in his disappointment, could hang his hat on. He hit a good 5-iron. You can build on that, that is if you have the ability to hit a drawing, soaring 250-yard 5-iron in the first place. In any event, it’s good to have friends.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com

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Michael Bamberger

Golf.com Contributor

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. Before that, he spent nearly 23 years as senior writer for Sports Illustrated. After college, he worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the (Martha’s) Vineyard Gazette, later for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written a variety of books about golf and other subjects, the most recent of which is The Second Life of Tiger Woods. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on The E-Club, a utility golf club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.