Rory McIlroy sounds like he's tired of discussing LIV and ready to focus on golf
PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Last September at the BMW PGA Championship, a sheepish reporter from the United Kingdom attempted to add some levity to a conversation almost devoid of punchlines.
“What percentage of your FedExCup prize money would you give us if we didn't mention a certain topic in this press conference?” the reporter laughed before being cut off by McIlroy, “Oh, I want you to. I want you to. Give me it all. It's fine.”
LIV Golf is the headline that keeps giving and McIlroy has been the primary antagonist ever since the breakaway league emerged from the shadows in the spring of 2020.
“I would like to be on the right side of history with this one,” he said when asked about the Premier Golf League, which gave way to LIV Golf.
He’s wanted all the smoke. All the pushback from the faceless hordes on social media, all the questions from pundits attempting to put the historic split in professional golf into some sort of context.
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PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan couldn’t have asked for a better wingman in his bout with the Saudi-backed league. When McIlroy won last year’s Canadian Open for his 21st Tour title, he couldn’t resist the urge to take a swipe at Greg Norman, LIV Golf’s CEO and owner of 20 Tour victories. “Twenty-first PGA Tour win, one more than someone else. That gave me a little extra incentive today,” he smiled.
When he finished a stroke behind champion Kurt Kitayama at this year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational following a marathon policy board meeting earlier in the week at Bay Hill, he was celebrated for his Herculean effort.
“When you look back over the last 12 to 18 months — Rory sat in a board meeting for seven hours last Tuesday night and finished one shot off the lead [at Bay Hill]. I mean, it's extraordinary. He was in the room this morning for an hour and a half, and he was here with you all today,” Monahan said at The Players Championship in March.
Even those on the other side of the LIV Golf divide marveled at McIlroy’s ability to balance his activism with his day job. But it turns out, there was a price to pay.
It started with an untimely missed cut at the Masters after beginning the week as one of the favorites and devolved when he skipped the RBC Heritage the following week, a designated event that cost him $3 million in Player Impact Program cash. He largely deflected questions about his decision to skip the Heritage, the second designated event he missed this season, on his way to a sloppy tie for 47th at the Wells Fargo Championship and arrived at this week’s PGA Championship a changed man.
If body language came with a scorecard, McIlroy was 3 down when he met with reporters Tuesday at Oak Hill.
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He was prompted to imagine what the professional game would look like in three years. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said.
He was pressed on LIV Golf and asked if he’d decided to “sidestep the narrative.” “Yeah,” he said.
Perhaps more telling, he was asked about the focus of his mental game, “Less expectations. Just sort of trying to sort of be in a good spot with taking what comes and not thinking about things too much, not getting ahead of myself,” he shrugged.
He was talking about his approach to golf, but given his course correction, it sounded more like a life lesson. For the last 18 months, McIlroy made the juggling act look easy, finishing second at Bay Hill following a mind-numbing board meeting on Tuesday, lapping the field in Canada with visions of Norman’s career mark running through his head and claiming the season-long title at East Lake with what felt like the weight of the PGA Tour on his shoulders.
There was no hint that those expectations would take a toll, but of course they would. LIV Golf had Norman and Phil Mickelson, probably not the best allies in the court of public opinion, and Monahan and the Tour had Rory – affable, outspoken and fiercely loyal.
In retrospect, perhaps this was inevitable. Perhaps McIlroy’s new outlook is nothing more than the byproduct of exhaustion, or perhaps it’s an acknowledgment that this fracture is here to stay and no amount of indignation or rhetoric is going to change that.
Instead of pro golf politics and player animus, McIlroy was instead focused on his game and Oak Hill, the type of major championship venue he’s feasted on during his career. He spent last week finding answers in Florida with swing coach, Michael Bannon, and was given an impromptu swing tip from Tiger Woods, who messaged McIlroy about something he saw in his swing during the Wells Fargo Championship.
“I've been working a little bit on my swing the last couple of weeks trying to get that back in order. If I can execute the way I feel I know that I can, then I should be OK,” he said.
If that doesn’t exactly sound like a would-be major champion or the Tour’s champion, know that McIlroy didn’t exactly sound like himself Tuesday at Oak Hill — and after an admittedly grueling 18 months, maybe he never will.