BROOKLINE, Mass. — If you knew absolutely nothing about PGA Tour golf — never mind the renegade LIV circuit — and got dropped off at the U.S. Open near the end of Rory McIlroy’s first round, you might have come to the conclusion that the early leader was just another rich and spoiled brat.
McIlroy took two raging hacks at a bunker on his 14th hole of the day, the short par-4 fifth at The Country Club, creating an explosion of sand after his baseball swing at a ball buried in the grass above said bunker produced a chopper into a nearby trap.
On his final hole, after trying and failing to body-English his approach shot into a quick left turn, McIlroy used a two-handed grip to fire his club into the ground. This show of poor sportsmanship could have said a lot of things about McIlroy that cut against the grain of this truth:
Rory is one of the best young leaders in professional sports, at a time when his sport needs him like never before.
Last week, when LIV Golf debuted outside of London with Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson leading the breakaway band, McIlroy landed a crushing counterpunch with a Canadian Open victory over Justin Thomas that gave him 21 career PGA Tour victories — one more, he repeatedly and gleefully pointed out, than the total claimed by LIV CEO Greg Norman.
This week, McIlroy again passionately defended the tour and again took the fight to the defectors, rebuking those still on the front nine of their careers (Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed) for, in his words, “taking the easy way out.”
The easy way in the form of up-front, nine-figure payments from a Saudi-funded league that surely would have offered the 33-year-old McIlroy far more than the $200 million it reportedly guaranteed Mickelson, who turned 52 Thursday. The Northern Irishman wasn’t interested in the blood-money grab because he is far more interested in his trophy case than he is in his retirement fund.
“It’s been eight years since I won a major,” said McIlroy, who won four of them between 2011 and 2014. “And I just want to get my hands on one again.”
He shot 3-under 67 despite his one and only bogey on his final hole and shared the lead heading into afternoon play. McIlroy explained that he was angered by the unnecessary stain he left on his scorecard, and by the excruciatingly slow pace of the group in front of him.
He also confessed that he was “sort of cursing the USGA” when he found his ball in jungle-thick rough on the edge of that bunker. Asked if it was OK for an athlete known for keeping his composure to occasionally show competitive anger and remind people just how much the results mean to him, McIlroy said, “Yeah, of course. Almost to remind yourself sometimes how much it means to you as well.”
And it means a ton to McIlroy, whose stated goals include becoming the best European player ever, the best international player ever, and the first non-American to win at least 10 majors. Putting his name on trophies alongside the legends, Rory said, is “something that money can’t buy.”
Money can buy a man’s soul, however, and that’s why golf is in such a chaotic state. The PGA Tour has suspended 17 members for living the LIV life, including Mickelson, and yet the USGA allowed all qualified Saudi-backed players to compete this week despite vehement opposition from families of 9/11 victims. Whatever the USGA, Royal & Ancient, PGA of America and, most importantly, Augusta National decide to do with their future major fields could determine how much damage is done to the tour.
Meanwhile, while everyone around him has lost his or her head, McIlroy has unsurprisingly emerged as the game’s most thoughtful voice and most reliable moral compass. His answers to tough questions have been much better than the LIV boys’ answers to tough questions. Though he pointed out that the vast majority of Middle Easterners he’s met in his travels have been very nice people, McIlroy also said that the LIV series “legitimizes [the Saudis’] place in the world.” Ouch.
He is fighting for the PGA Tour because Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer willed it into existence, and because he doesn’t want to see their hard work reduced to dust. His view is as wide as the widest par-5 because, in the end, a person is defined by legacy and reputation. “You strip everything away,” McIlroy said the other day, “and you’re left with how you made people feel and what people thought of you. That is important to me.”
So is his role as the conscience of a sport that has totally lost its way.
“I’m just being me,” McIlroy said. “I’m living my life. … I wasn’t trying to be in this position. I’m just being me.”
Once upon a time, young Rory was billed as the Next Tiger and hired as Woods’ co-star in Nike ads with a passing-of-the-torch approach. It made perfect marketing sense until the kid stopped winning majors.
And that’s OK; the PGA Tour is still damn lucky to have him. By showing how an athlete can be an elder statesman while still very much in his prime, Rory McIlroy is proving he doesn’t have to be another Tiger to go down as a lion.