BROOKLINE, Mass. —Rory McIlroy would face questions on history. On being a leader. On friendships. On 9/11 and sports washing. All are serious topics, and rightfully so, and he no doubt knew what was coming during his pre-tournament US Open press conference.
So when he saw the chance for levity on Tuesday, to exhale, he jumped at it.
“I don’t want to rub your nose in a bad prediction, but in February, you said that this thing was dead in the water, and obviously, now …” the reporter started.
“The US Open?” McIlroy said, laughing.
“No, no, no …” the reporter tried to continue, unsuccessfully.
“I thought we were at the US Open,” McIlroy said.
And he certainly was. But try as he may, there would be steering the conversation toward the 72 holes ahead at the Country Club in Brookline. Was some of that the assembled reporters’ fault? In doubt. But even a Sports Illustrated for Kids question — about Francis Ouimet, the 1913 winner here, and the 10-year-old caddy he used — saw McIlroy pound his podium and talk about the importance of golf’s history.
Should you need a quick paragraph refresher before we go further, it would read like this: An upstart league called the LIV Golf Invitational Series, after months (years?) of rumors, played its first tournament last weekend, its field cashed Saudi-backed paychecks, its star, Phil Mickelson, once described those backers as “scary MFers,” and the home of some of those players involved, the PGA Tour, has told them they are now no longer welcome. A lot’s going on. For the fan, understandably, it’s created conflict: Do I watch Dustin Johnson, Ian Poulter and a host of others I know well? Or do I consider the sourcing and look away?
Notably, this is a similar thought for McIlroy, but it goes deeper. He’s not watching just players. Many are friends. And maybe unknowingly, he summed it up well when the reporter above eventually finished his question. In late February, after players pledged their commitments to the Tour over LIV, McIlroy declared the upstart “dead in the water,” only for two of those golfers, Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, to renege on that commitment, and the writer asked: “ I’m wondering what do you feel like you got wrong, whether it’s about state of the game or about your peers to where this thing has more life than initially thought?”
“I guess I took a lot of players’ statements at face value,” McIlroy said. “I guess that’s what I got wrong. You had people committed to the PGA Tour, and that’s what the statements that were put out. People went back on that, so I guess I took them for face value.
“I took them at their word, and I was wrong.”
Strong words there. No, it appears he’s not afraid to talk detrimentally to folks he knows well. Here’s McIlroy, for example, on the idea of players his age, such as DeChambeau and Talor Gooch, playing the LIV series.
“A lot of these guys are in their late 40s. In Phil’s case, early 50s,” he said. “Yeah, I think everyone in this room and they would say to you themselves that their best days are behind them. That’s why I don’t understand for the guys who are a similar age to me going because I would like to believe that my best days are still ahead of me, and I think theirs are too. So that’s where it feels like you’re taking the easy way out.”
And here’s McIlroy on whether the LIV players are involved in “sports washing,” the concept where they are playing golf to help you gloss over the actions of those aforementioned “scary MFers.”
“I’m not sure if they’re totally — I don’t think they’re complicit in it,” he said. “In a way, I think — look, they all have the choice to play where they want to play, and they’ve made their decision. My dad said to me a long time ago, once you make your bed, you lie in it, and they’ve made their bed. That’s their decision, and they have to live with that.”
Still, he said, tough as this may sound, no, McIlroy doesn’t think his previous relationships will be strained.
“I’m still going to be close with the guys who have made the decision to play those events,” he said. “It’s not as if you agree on absolutely everything that all your friends do. You’re going to have a difference of opinion on a lot of things. That’s fine. That’s what makes this a great world. We can’t all agree on everything.
“I don’t know. I don’t think anyone can see where this thing will be in five years’ time or 10 years’ time. If I had a crystal ball, I could obviously give you a better answer. Honestly, I don’t know.”
It’s here where you’re possibly asking whether you can have it both ways — talk tough and still play 18 with those you talk tough about. It’s not as if he’s disagreeing with someone over a favorite team or music choice here. And McIlroy’s answer above tells you he’s in conflict.
But maybe your answer comes in his answer to why he’s taken on a rather recent mantle of “PGA Tour leader” in all of this.
Sometimes you have to make a choice.
“Because in my opinion it’s the right thing to do,” McIlroy said. “The PGA Tour was created by people and tour players that came before us, the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer. They created something and worked hard for something, and I hate to see all the players that came before us and all the hard work that they’ve put in just come out to be nothing.
“I think one of the other things as well as the PGA Tour has certainly given me a lot of opportunities, and I’ve benefited a lot from that, but I think what they’ve done for charity. They’ve raised — if you put all the other major sporting organizations in this country — so NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, if you put all their charitable dollars combined, the PGA Tour has raised twice as much as that in their history.
“That is a massive legacy and something that I don’t think people talk enough about, so when you are talking about the Tour and everything that’s happening right now, you have to see the bigger picture than just the golf, and I think I ‘ve tried to take a wider view of everything, and I just think it’s the right thing to do.”