A life as extraordinary as that of Rory McIlroy will seldom include ordinary years. Events surrounding the Northern Irishman over the past 12 months just feel worthy of special reflection.
McIlroy’s successful defence of the CJ Cup on Sunday restored him as the world’s top-ranked golfer. Another European order of merit title is within his grasp. McIlroy’s 2022 has been of great highs – he won the Canadian Open and FedEx Cup before glory in South Carolina – and painful lows. After the Open Championship slipped away, McIlroy was reduced to tears.
On media podiums, McIlroy confidently emerged as the popular voice of golf’s establishment despite others – primarily his wife, Erica – asking why he voiced such vociferous sentiment against the breakaway LIV tour. “Oh yeah, all the time,” McIlroy says with a laugh. “On the basis it literally does not affect us one bit. My life is not going to change whether people go to LIV or they don’t. But I care. It mightn’t change our life but it will the guys grinding their asses off to get a tour card. There’s a lot of people in the game who don’t have the voice or the platform I have so I am trying to speak up for them a little, too.”
McIlroy has no desire to fan the flames of controversy, though. Recent time spent with a “cool head” in Europe, away from the “echo chamber” of the United States golf scene, offered fresh perspective. The 33-year-old recognises the PGA Tour is not completely innocent in golf’s civil war and, more importantly, wants peace to break out. “This ‘us versus them’ thing has gotten way out of control already,” McIlroy says. “If the two entities keep doubling down in both directions, it is only going to become irreparable. We are going to have a fractured sport for a long time. That is no good for anyone.”
None of this should disguise the hurt McIlroy feels in respect of LIV rebels. Sergio García, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter provide cases in point. Friendships established at Ryder Cups are, for now, non-existent. On a human level, this is a horrible shame. McIlroy speaks of a “polarising” scene where relationships have been broken. García and co look certain to be ostracised from the Ryder Cup because of their LIV attachment.
“It’s a weird thing,” McIlroy says. “I think it is the first time in my life that I have felt betrayal, in a way. It’s an unfamiliar feeling to me. You build bonds with these people through Ryder Cups and other things. Them knowing that what they are about to do is going to jeopardise them from being a part of that ever again? There was a great opportunity for GMac to maybe be the captain at Adare in 2027. Most of Sergio’s legacy is Ryder Cup-based, same with Poulter, Westwood.
“I would like to think the Ryder Cup means as much to them as it does to me. Maybe it does. But knowing what the consequences could be, I just could never make that decision. OK, it might not be 100% certain but that it could be the outcome? It just isn’t a move I would be willing to make. I thought they felt the same way.
“I feel like the place where they have been able to build their legacy and build their brand, they have just left behind. You could make the same argument about me, I started in Europe and went to America but I have always been supportive of the traditional system. If people felt so aggrieved about some things, I’d rather be trying to make those changes from inside the walls than trying to go outside and be disruptive.”
McIlroy is careful not to apply a moral argument to Saudi Arabia’s entry into mainstream golf. “I don’t necessarily think their intentions are bad,” he says. “I think they have been misguided in how to spend the money.” He is similarly nonplussed about Dustin Johnson’s collection of $18m (£15.6m) for winning LIV’s individual series. “Out of all the ones who went, DJ seems to be the one who has accepted it the most. Maybe he is the smart one.”
The recurring inference, though, is that McIlroy has little time for LIV’s front man, Greg Norman. “He has basically found people to fund his vendetta against the PGA Tour. I think he hides behind ‘force for good’ and all that stuff … this has been his dream for 30 years and he has finally found people who can fund that dream.”
McIlroy’s prime goal for the year involved the claiming of a second Claret Jug, at St Andrews. After 54 holes, the prospect was a live one as McIlroy shared the lead with Viktor Hovland. Cameron Smith’s final-round 64 claimed the Open. Shortly after completion of media duties, McIlroy was sobbing into his wife’s shoulder.
“It was a sign of how big it was,” McIlroy says. “I thought the whole Open week was quite nostalgic. St Andrews, the 150th, you could feel the sense of history around you. I was accepted into the R&A as an honorary member that week. So because of so many things, it felt quite emotional anyway. Then to have the chance to win and not get it done, coupled with the fact I haven’t won a major in eight years … if I hadn’t let it out and hadn’t let myself have that release, I wouldn’t have been able to move forward. It was a tough night.”
And a sign, perhaps, that McIlroy’s sport had not entirely lost the plot amid discussion about LIV and its riches. “If anyone has benefited from the amount of money in the game, it is me,” says McIlroy. “I came in at a time when prize funds were exploding. But if I didn’t win the FedEx Cup in Atlanta, I wasn’t going to cry on Erica’s shoulder afterwards. I didn’t win the Open, didn’t get that Claret Jug and cried.
“At the end of the day, it is sport. It is not a ‘product,’ it is not ‘entertainment,’ it is sport. It is competitors trying to get the best out of themselves to win something. That should be the most satisfying thing.”
McIlroy learned to make peace with the fact a successful year can exist without major glory. “That’s hard when you have been programmed to think something else,” he says. “Growing up, my favourite player was Tiger Woods. He made it all about the majors. The media perpetuate that narrative; of the four biggest moments in the game, the things that matter most.
“What I am proud of is the body of work I put together this year. It didn’t culminate in picking up one of those trophies but if I can put that together again next year or the year after, that will result in a [major] trophy at some point. I can’t force the issue. That’s when you make mistakes.”
Ask McIlroy about his most memorable golfing company of 2022 and the answers will not follow convention. Ric Elias is the chief executive of Red Ventures, a portfolio of digital companies based in Charlotte. He was also a front row passenger as flight 1549 crash landed in the Hudson River, 13 years ago. “I found that really, really interesting,” McIlroy explains. “You have a different outlook on life when an event like that happens to you. I had watched the movie before but this was super interesting.”
McIlroy partnered Barack Obama on a golf course for the first time. “Likes his golf, super nice guy,” he adds. “It was right at the start of Russia invading Ukraine so he had a really good perspective on that. We spoke about the wider world.” There has been no call from President Biden yet, albeit the pair sat beside each other at a White House state dinner a decade ago. Does McIlroy ever pinch himself? “Oh yeah. It’s nuts, absolutely nuts. That’s the great thing about golf, how many people are connected to the game.
“I like being with people who think differently, people who have done extraordinary things in different walks of life. You probably walk past those people every day without knowing.”
McIlroy has delved into the innovation game. Alongside Woods he will deliver technologically advanced, in-stadium golf experiences from early 2024.
“We are not going to cater for tens of thousands but if you have an in-person audience of between 2,500-5,000 in an indoor arena, that setting is a great experience to be a part of,” he says. “It’s a made-for-TV product. That’s where this thing could really take off. It’s a way to work within the current structure that complements everything else. Tiger legitimises anything that happens in the game and he can participate. One of the things he has really embraced in the last few years is this mentoring role. This is just another avenue for him to do that.”
McIlroy’s enthusiasm again shines through. Such passion has been constant during the wildest of times.