It may not be the gift of the PGA Tour to pre-determine event winners, but it’s safe to assume that Rory McIlroy’s latest FedEx Cup win was met with approval in the corridors of power.
McIlroy left East Lake $18 million richer after undoing Scottie Scheffler’s 54-hole lead by half a dozen shots. For the Northern Irishman, there is another validation of a year in which he played his finest golf. When it comes to the PGA Tour, McIlroy is the perfect ambassador.
A firm defense of that environment against the lingering threat of the Saudi-backed LIV Gulf has seen the 33-year-old go from superstar to statesman. He gives the strange reminder that he can also play a bit. As LIV prepared to announce the newest crop of recruits, including Open champion Cameron Smith, McIlroy became the first golfer to win a trio of FedEx Cups.
“This is the best place in the world to play golf,” McIlroy said. “It’s the most competitive. It has the best players. It has the deepest fields. I don’t know why you would want to play anywhere else.”
McIlroy’s next stop is at the DP World Tour’s PGA Championship, which begins Thursday at the West Course in Wentworth. There he comes face-to-face with LIV rebels who – for now at least – are allowed to play on what was previously the European Tour.
“If you believe in something, I think you should speak out, and I believe in this very strongly,” McIlroy said. “I really. I hate what it does to the game of golf. I hate it. I really. It will be hard for me to go to Wentworth and see 18 of them there. That just doesn’t suit me.
“So yes, I feel strong. I believe that what I’m saying are the right things, and I think if you believe that what you’re saying are the right things, you’ll happily stick your neck out on the leash.
As of now, Wentworth’s entry list includes high-profile LIV converts Lee Westwood, Sergio García, Patrick Reed, Martin Kaymer, Richard Bland, Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter. Locker room exchanges can be interesting. McIlroy and García were once very close.
A fascinating aspect of McIlroy’s career is that tumult seems to routinely inspire him. “In a way, it’s my life,” he said. “I don’t really know any different. Honestly, golf has been the escape for me for the past few weeks. It’s been, I’m getting in the ropes, no one can get to me. It’s my escape from all those other things that are going on. I think I can switch on and off pretty well. I can split things up.
“I’ve had to learn that the hard way over the years too, but I’ve had a lot of experience and this is my 15th year on Tour. I have a lot of good experiences, bad experiences, things to learn from, and I think all of that helps me navigate where we are now. ”
It seems unfortunate that this fleeting scene overshadowed McIlroy’s exploits in Georgia. Scheffler, the world No. 1, crumbled to a slot of 73 in McIlroy’s company. The champion’s 66 was not without drama, even on the last hole where his drawn approach shot cracked into a stand. McIlroy held up his nerve to knock Scheffler and Im Sung-jae off with one shot. Incredibly, he opened the first round at East Lake with a triple-bogey seven. “I know my best equipment is good enough to win any tournament against anyone on a golf course,” said McIlroy. “When you win and when you do things, it gives you more energy than anything. It makes you want to do it more.”
The sore point of this year came on the east coast of Scotland, where McIlroy tied for the Open Championship lead after three rounds, but closed two to Smith. McIlroy, whose wait for a fifth major title dates back to 2014.
“I’ve knocked on the door so many times this year,” said McIlroy. “St Andrews was really hard for me. It was a difficult one to get over. This softens the blow a bit. It doesn’t make it much easier to get over it, but it’s great to end the season on a high this way.
“The big championships are the pinnacle of our sport. This is right behind. I felt so close all year round. I had a few wins, but I was just waiting for something. Maybe this was it.” On to Wentworth, where the off-course theater could be as dramatic as anything on it.