Rory McIlroy's annual Quail Hollow birthday celebration also marks pivotal reset this year
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Eleven of Rory McIlroy’s 34 birthdays have been spent at Quail Hollow Club.
The place has marked the chapters of McIlroy’s career more than any other on the PGA Tour, and it was apropos that he arrived in the Queen City this week ready to turn the page.
So much has changed since he celebrated his 21st birthday — two days after recording his first victory on Tour in 2010, at Quail Hollow. He became a husband, a father, the world’s top-ranked player on multiple occasions and, in an odd twist of circumstance, one of the more polarizing figures in the game.
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It was impossible not to take stock early Thursday when he teed off at Quail Hollow to a chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
The three-time winner of this event joked last year that International Presidents Cup captain Trevor Immelman should consider him for the matches (Europeans compete in the Ryder Cup instead), which were played on the Charlotte-area gem. Yet, as the pre-tournament busy work passed, he was conspicuously quiet, skipping a normal press conference for a more relaxed scrum with reporters Tuesday evening at a corporate event.
For the past year McIlroy has actively embraced the role of unofficial spokesperson for the PGA Tour in its ongoing turf war with LIV Golf, telling reporters last year at the BMW PGA Championship, on the DP World Tour, that he wanted all the smoke that came with the antagonist role.
But a potent combination of that scrutiny, a gutting performance at the Masters, where he missed the cut after starting the week among the favorites, and a grueling schedule to start the year took a toll that ended up costing McIlroy $3 million and, according to some Tour players, some street cred.
McIlroy opted to skip last month’s RBC Heritage, which was held the week after the Masters. Top players like McIlroy are allowed to skip one designated event this year, and the Heritage was the second elevated tournament the Northern Irishman missed, meaning he had to forfeit the final 25 percent ($3 million) of his bonus from the 2022 Player Impact Program.
Although McIlroy declined to give specific reasons for skipping the Heritage, the subtext suggested he simply needed a mental health break.
“My mind wouldn’t have been there. It was more important for me to be home,” McIlroy told reporters Tuesday evening. “I would’ve been doing myself a disservice, and I would’ve been doing the people around me a disservice if I had gone to play.”
Alongside Tiger Woods, McIlroy is the architect of the new Tour schedule and the designated events, which means his decision to skip the Heritage came with a dollop of scrutiny from some players who have pushed back on the circuit’s transition to the new elevated reality, but even that is clearly shade he’s willing to endure.
He opened with a 68 on a chilly Thursday morning to begin his week just two shots off the early lead, and with the confident return came a touch of vindication.
“I'm sort of getting used to it. It's really nice,” McIlroy said of spending another birthday in Charlotte. “It's nice to be out there and everyone wishing you, sort of wishing you a good day.”
Few Tour courses not named Augusta National have evolved as much as Quail Hollow, and with every redesign, the place has only become more comfortable for McIlroy.
When he won his maiden title in 2010, the second hole was a 175-yard par 3 and the course played to 7,400 yards. When he completed the hat trick in 2021, No. 2 was a 452-yard par 4 and the layout had been stretched to 7,500 yards.
“It's probably made it a little better [for me]. The golf course has become a little bigger, a little longer,” McIlroy said. “I think it suited me both ways. And I've always had a level of comfort on this golf course, whether it was back in the sort of 2011-2012 era or sort of post-PGA in 2017.”
McIlroy also enjoyed a comfortable pairing for his big day alongside good friend Matt Fitzpatrick, who laughed after the round that he gave the birthday boy an unintended gift when McIlroy bounced his tee shot off Fitzpatrick’s golf ball. The coincidence put McIlroy within 5 feet at the par-3 fourth hole, setting up his third birdie of the day.
Stars collide ⭐️ literally!
Rory McIlroy got a little help from Matt Fitzpatrick on this one. 🤝pic.twitter.com/xYMu2JgAj6
— Golf Central (@GolfCentral) May 4, 2023
“I hit my 9-iron to 2 foot, and then he hit his 9-iron or whatever he hit and it hit my ball and his went to like 4 foot, so yeah, saved him a birdie there,” Fitzpatrick laughed.
For over a decade, Quail Hollow has been a second home for McIlroy where he’s comfortable and confident, and following a turbulent few months both on and off the golf course, it’s also proven to be as good a spot as any for a much-needed reset.