In May 2011, Rory McIlroy and fellow-Ryder Cupper Ian Poulter were at Wembley for the Champions League final between Manchester United and Barcelona. McIlroy is a Man U fan. Poulter poked fun at him in a tweet because he had ordinary seats whereas Poulter, an Arsenal supporter, was a guest in an executive box. McIlroy’s reply was telling and amusing. ‘With the real supporters…Here to be heard, not seen!!’ The follow-though was ‘oh and I actually paid for my ticket unlike some.’ And in those elements, you have the Rory story: the Ryder Cup, asperity, humour, Twitter chatter (sometimes with dodgy punctuation), self-confidence…oh, plus extraordinary talent.
THAT EXTRAORDINARY TALENT was on display last week at the WGC/Mexico Championship at the Chapultepec Golf Club, Mexico City, over 7,000 feet above sea level. Having lost a playoff in his opening event of 2017 in early January, McIlroy had been sidelined with a rib injury until this tournament, in which he was inconvenienced by a stomach bug – “I was worshipping the porcelain bowl” – before the first round. And before that he had been inconvenienced by many in the media over the fact that last month he’d accepted an invitation to play a round of golf with President Trump.
From the consternation this caused in some quarters, you’d have thought McIlroy had murdered a small child rather than played golf with the elected leader of perhaps Britain’s foremost ally. As he said: “We were talking about golf, not foreign policy. Because I’m not American I don’t feel a real part of it. I’m just interested by the phenomenon of it all. I don’t really care about the policies. To go there and see 30 secret service and 30 cops and snipers in the trees…it’s just a surreal experience. That was part of the reason I wanted to play.” He added, probably unnecessarily: “If it had been Obama, I would have gone to play. I’m sorry if I pissed people off but I felt I was in a position where I couldn’t really do anything but say ‘yes’…I was a little bit taken aback by the blowback I received but I get why.”
Anyhow, in Mexico the following week he went to play knowing that victory might enable him to take over as the world No. 1 from Dustin Johnson, whose ridiculous length meant that at that altitude his wedge shots carried about 180 yards. Entering the final round, McIlroy trailed Johnson by one and the leader, Justin Thomas, by two. They were in the final threesome together. Thomas shot 72 to throw away his chances, as well as a few clubs along the way; Rory had a 71 which left him tied for seventh; DJ produced a fine 68 to see him home by a shot from England’s Tommy Fleetwood, winner in Abu Dhabi in January, and by two from Ross Fisher and Jon Rahm.
McIlroy was sanguine about the outcome. “I needed to get off to a fast start and I didn’t,” he said. “I was hoping to improve as the week went on but all in all, first week back, it’s OK.” His career has been a bit better than that.
BORN IN HOLYWOOD, Northern Ireland, in May 1989, the only child of Gerry and Rosie, the young McIlroy enjoyed a distinguished amateur career, including winning the silver medal for being low amateur at the 2007 Open Championship. He turned professional that September. He won for the first time on the European Tour in 2009 after an opening 64 at the Dubai Desert Classic and for the first time in the States at Quail Hollow in 2010 on the back of a closing 62. He has been the world No. 1 for 95 weeks, miles adrift of Tiger Woods (683) and Greg Norman (331) but very close to catching Nick Faldo (97) and thereby moving up to third on the all-time list. Maybe he’ll have got there by the time the tour caravan reaches Augusta next month.
Ah, yes – the Masters. As McIlroy has been saying since he won his third different major championship, the 2014 Open, “The Masters is the one…” This coming April, as surely as controversy follows Donald Trump, it will happen again. McIlroy said ahead of the tournament last April: “I think I am a good enough player and have everything I need to become a Masters champion. But I also know that each and every year that passes, the expectation will rise and it will become increasingly difficult.” No one said he wasn’t perceptive.
Jack Nicklaus said recently: “I think he will win the Masters some day. The media are going to focus on this because he hasn’t won it. He certainly has the type of game that would do well at Augusta and he has done well before – he just hasn’t finished it.”
In 2011, he led by four going into the final round and didn’t finish it, although it is frequently overlooked that his four-shot lead had gone before he’d played even the 2nd hole. He began with a bogey; Charl Schwartzel started birdie-par-eagle. Already they were tied. Schwartzel would go on to win; Rory would stumble home with an 80, an unthinkable ten shots adrift. In 1956, Ken Venturi had led the Masters by four shots only to lose it with an 80 on Sunday, so this wasn’t unprecedented. But Venturi was an amateur, not a tour winner on both sides of the Atlantic. On the other hand, it took Venturi a little over eight years to win a major championship, the 1964 US Open. It took McIlroy a little over eight weeks to manage that. By coincidence, at the same venue.
In the US Open at Congressional, he had double-delight compared to Augusta: an eight-shot lead on Sunday morning. By Sunday evening that was his margin of victory. “If you had asked me when I turned pro did I think I’d have won a major by 22, I would have said no,” said an exultant champion. “I can always call myself a major champion now and I can go ahead and focus on trying to get some more.”
His tally of 16 under par was a US Open record. When he won the USPGA at Kiawah Island the following year, that was again by eight shots – another championship record. Nothing to this majors lark, hey?
The next two were much closer affairs. In the 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool he got home by two – and thanked the crowd for their tremendous support “even though I’m a Man United fan standing here”, which drew the good-natured boos he’d expected – and in the USPGA at Valhalla the following month he won by a shot after a dramatic finale and fierce determination. It was so dark that McIlroy insisted he and playing partner Bernd Wiesberger first hit their drives on the par-five 18th and then their second shots while, ahead, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler were playing the same hole. “We were cool with them hitting the tee shots,” said Fowler. “We weren’t expecting the approach shots.” Mickelson seemed less relaxed, but then he was the man Rory deprived of the title.
Aged 24, McIlroy had won four majors. Only Nicklaus and Woods had previously managed that. As Jim Furyk later noted: “Rory’s got guts. He doesn’t back down.”
But soon he would have to back off. He withdrew from the 2015 Open after sustaining an ankle injury while playing football with his mates. “It can happen walking off a tee box,” he said, defending his actions and determined to pretty much carry on regardless. He copped quite a lot of flak in the media for being careless but not from other players. Mickelson said: “You can’t live in fear. You can’t stop living your life. Accidents happen. People get hurt taking a shower.” Indeed: Roger Federer missed the latter half of the last tennis season due to an injury initially caused when he twisted a knee while running a bath for one of his children. His comeback in Australia in January went quite well, I think you’d agree.
“This is my time to capitalize on my career,” said McIlroy at the end of 2015. “The next 10, 15 years is my time.” Football with friends would continue, just not in mid-summer. “I really can’t be doing silly things like playing football in the middle of the season and jeopardising even six months of my career. That’s a big chunk where I could make some hay and win a major or two.” To help in that endeavour, in the December he had laser surgery on his eyes – “I’ve always felt I struggled to read greens” – and admitted he’d put the treatment off until then so that it would not be during the season. He’d evidently learnt his footy lesson already!
BUT NO ONE said he couldn’t get feisty. Heading into the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in November 2015, McIlroy held the advantage over Danny Willett in the Race to Dubai, but not without controversy. Keith Pelley, chief executive of the European Tour, had granted the Irishman special dispensation so that he did not have to fulfil the Tour’s criterion of playing in at least 13 events in order to be eligible to win it, this on account of the fact that Rory’s football injury had caused him to curtail his schedule. Willett was both riled about this – “there’s a lot of guys who play through injuries week in, week out; it’s the story of the game…if it had been anyone else they might not have been given the same treatment” – and relaxed about it – “Keith couldn’t have not given a dispensation to him really…it’s Rory and he’s going to be the life force of this Tour for the next 15 years, so have you got to look after him? Yes.”
McIlroy was forthright on the matter. “If I can win more money in 12 events than someone can win in 23, I don’t see any reason why there’s a problem”. No false modesty there. “I played half the events and won more money.” As indeed he did by winning the tournament as well, beating Andy Sullivan by a shot. Willett was eight shots back. Job done.
Around that time, McIlroy had been talking with relish about taking part in golf’s reintroduction to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Indeed, a couple of years previously he had been grateful that the R&A had effectively taken the decision for him that he would play for Ireland rather than GB&I. “It would be lovely to win an Olympic gold,” he told Ewen Murray in The Guardian. “I never thought I’d have the chance to be an Olympic athlete.”
Six months later those pesky mosquitoes and the zika virus had caused a change of heart. “After speaking with those closest to me, I’ve come to realise that my health and my family’s health comes before anything else. Even though the risk of infection is considered low, it is a risk nonetheless and a risk I am unwilling to take.” McIlroy was by then engaged to Erica Stoll and zika is a particular threat to babies. He and Stoll are due to get married this year so a family may be fairly imminent.
At the Open Championship the following month, his reasoning had become slightly bitter. He said he would likely not watch the Olympic golf but “probably track and field, swimming, diving, the stuff that matters”. He added: “I don’t feel like I’ve let the game down at all. I didn’t get into golf to try to grow the game; I got into golf to win championships…I didn’t get into golf to get other people into the game.”
Within 24 hours, it doubtless having been brought to his attention that his anti-evangelical remarks were distinctly off-message (even Tiger appeared to have been shocked), he had rowed back on the latter point but not his specific indifference as to golf’s role in the Olympic movement. About that, he confessed in November: “A few people used that excuse [the zika virus] and I sort of jumped on the bandwagon.”
Before October was out, more controversy. He withdrew from the Turkish Airlines Open in Antalya (see, it wasn’t only the Olympics he’d boycott), a $7 million tournament which had him as a poster boy, because of security fears. (Although who can honestly say that was an unreasonable perspective?) He was asked if he thought the combination of the two withdrawals might hurt his image. He didn’t duck the question. “I think I do enough good things on and off the course charity-wise and with the way I carry myself [no false modesty there either] that pulling out of two events is not going to change that.”
The Turkish tournament was organised by Chubby Chandler’s International Sports Management Group (ISM). McIlroy had been an ISM client since he’d turned pro until he split with them 2011. You can pick your own choice of rumour as to the real reason why. From there he joined Conor Ridge’s Horizon Sports Management, who looked after his friend and regular Ryder Cup partner, Graeme McDowell. That lasted until February 2015 and ended after McIlroy paid an undisclosed sum (as always in such circumstances, one side likes to fuel speculation that the figure is enormous, the other that it’s trifling) on the eve of a court hearing in order to terminate the proceedings as well as his contract. He then created his own management company, Rory McIlroy Inc. My bet is that he won’t be suing himself.
His much-trumpeted mega-bucks equipment deal with Nike (in this instance, of course, everyone involved has a vested interest in talking up how big the numbers are) was effective from January 2013, but his golf was initially not so effective with the new sticks. He didn’t win until the Australian Open in December. He was accused of being a greedy so-and-so and several venerable sages of the game queued up to tell him what a terrible mistake he had made. Of course, as he played the clubs in, two majors and two other titles in 2014 did put a different slant on that. But that’s over now anyway since Nike announced in August it was quitting the club-manufacturing business and McIlroy began this season using a Callaway/Titleist combo.
CONTROVERSY DOES TEND, if not to accompany him, at least to hang around McIlroy. Of course, that is part and parcel of being famous. In May 2014, at a press conference ahead of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, he made it public that his courtship of tennis player Caroline Wozniaki was over. Wedding plans had been made for the coming autumn. His termination of the relationship was, perhaps to put it kindly, abrupt – a telephone call. “The problem is mine,” said McIlroy, although his erstwhile fiancée may not quite have taken that view. “The wedding invitations issued at the weekend made me realise I wasn’t ready for all that marriage entails. I wish Caroline all the happiness she deserves and thank her for the great times we’ve had.”
Five days later, a closing 66 enabled him to make up seven shots on Thomas Bjorn to win the title, his first on either side of the Atlantic for 18 months. Within three months, majors Nos 3 & 4 were in the bag. Breaking off an engagement, while hardly an admirable thing to do, was clearly not a killer career-wise. Given her own profession, Wozniaki probably realised that selfishness is a necessary element of being a prominent sportsperson.
Last November, McIlroy was the subject of a ‘Little Interview’ by 9-year-old ‘Billy’ for the European Tour’s website. “I know Andy Murray is a good mate of yours but who’s your favourite girl tennis player?” asked Billy. After a very long pause and a couple of awkward chuckles, Rory responded: “Honestly, Billy, I’ve stopped following women’s tennis for the last couple of years.”
At the conclusion of their chat, Billy presented him with an early wedding present in honour of his impending nuptials with Stoll. McIlroy opened it and said, puzzled: “Box of socks! What’s all this about?” The riposte was sharp. “Just in case you get cold feet again.” Rory seemed to take it well.
Although he is mostly gracious with the media and comparatively generous with his time, McIlroy doesn’t care too much what the press think. In January 2015, he tweeted in praise of a comment made by an NFL player, Marshawn Lynch: ‘Love this! Paid to play, not answer questions’. In 2011, he took to Twitter (obviously) to defend himself and his caddie, J.P. Fitzgerald, from criticisms by BBC radio commentator, Jay Townsend, saying the former tour pro was a “failed golfer” and “his opinion means nothing”. Although clearly enough to get under McIlroy’s skin. Then again, maybe it doesn’t do for the media to criticise his frankness too harshly. We’re supposed to prefer to candour to vanilla. To paraphrase a Bob Marley poem: “He’s not perfect. We aren’t either.”
One saga which lasted a while concerned the Ryder Cup. In a 2009 interview, McIlroy described it as “an exhibition”. He added: “Golf is an individual sport and my goals are to win tournaments for myself.” Shades of what he’d say after withdrawing from the Olympics! The 2010 European Ryder Cup captain, Colin Montgomerie, was unhappy about this, saying: “It’s not an exhibition. It’s a very unique, special event.” After Europe had won at Celtic Manor, with Rory contributing two points out of the four he contested, he revised his opinion with a joke. “It’s the best exhibition in the world!” he declared to cheers from his teammates. He was firmly onside now.
McILROY AND POULTER were fourball partners in that match on the second day of the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah. After Rory had won the 13th with a birdie, he was happy to let someone else have the limelight as Poulter birdied the last five holes almost to beat Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson on his own and keep Europe in with a prayer of retaining the trophy.
The next morning, McIlroy – now notoriously – almost missed his tee-time for his singles because he’d been looking at the clock on The Golf Channel, which was on Eastern Time whereas Chicago is on Central Time. The PGA of America officials sorted out a police escort to get him to the church…sorry, the course on time. Among his helpers was Ms Stoll, the young lady who is set to become Mrs McIlroy. On the day McIlroy met his match he also saw off Keegan Bradley by 2&1. Historically – hysterically, if you weren’t an American – Europe overcame a four-point overnight deficit to win.
At Gleneagles two years later, he earned two points from a possible four before demolishing Fowler in the singles as Europe made it three wins in a row. Going into the match at Hazeltine last September, McIlroy had the week beforehand won the Tour Championship, the final event on the PGA Tour, with a closing 64. He thus claimed the FedEx Cup, the American equivalent of the Race to Dubai. And how well he played at the Ryder Cup. Predictably ridden hard by captain Darren Clarke, he earned three points out of four over the first two days. The problem was, in his singles match against Patrick Reed, which was always going to be a pivotal match, not least because it was the first one out, he came up against a man who seemed to be putting into a bucket. At times the golf was preposterous. In a four-hole stretch from the 5th they were a combined total of nine under par. Reed beat him on the 18th and the USA won the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2008, and the first time with McIlroy on the European team, by an emphatic 17-11.
“It does hurt,” said Rory. “We would definitely like to be feeling what the Americans are feeling right now but…” And then he got statesmanlike. “But I think it’s good for golf. It keeps the Ryder Cup interesting going to France in a couple of years. It just gives us that little…not that we needed any more, but incentive to want to get it back on home turf next time.” All talk of an exhibition was very much in the past.
LIKE MANY MODERN celebrities, McIlroy generally prefers Twitter tattle to set-piece interviews. That way, not only is there a direct connection with the fans who follow him, no one can edit (“twist” would be the go-to word of the disaffected sports star) what he says. And he can be funny.
At the 2010 Dubai World Championship, Ian Poulter effectively lost his playoff with Robert Karlsson when he dropped his ball on the marker he’d left on the green, which caused it to flip over and move nearer the hole, thus incurring a shot penalty – potentially a €300,000 mistake. McIlroy tweeted: ‘Poults may not have won the Dubai World Championship, but he could be in with a shout for tiddlywinks world championship!’
The header to McIlroy’s Twitter profile reads ‘I hit a little white ball around a field sometimes’. And he does tweet quite regularly, and not only with well-known people. For example, this past December, a fan asked ‘Hi Rory was just wondering why you didn’t wear a cap whilst playing in the Ryder Cup when you always do normally?’ McIlroy replied ‘I’ve a pea head and the hats were way too big for me!’ Nothing big-headed about that answer.
Re those 2011 tweets with Poulter, Barcelona won that Champions League final but in the media centre after his US Open win the following month, McIlroy took a photo of the press pack with the trophy in the foreground so he could put it on Twitter. “I’ve waited all week to do this,” he explained gleefully. In the American weekly magazine, Golf World, Ron Sirak wrote: “In nearly 15 years as a pro, nothing close to that spontaneous ever occurred with Tiger Woods.”
McILROY WAS THE first golfer to be billed as ‘the next Tiger Woods’. He’s not that good but he knows his place and he’s proud of it. At the Open last summer, he was reminded that he hadn’t won a major championship for two years while Jordan Spieth (twice), Jason Day and Dustin Johnson had and were therefore catching up on him. “Yes,” he answered. “I’m pleased they’ve got their four majors and I’m pleased I’ve got my four.” Touché. Since events at Royal Troon, there is also Henrik Stenson on his case. Those five are the pre-eminent golfers in the world today, with Rory entering March 2017 behind Johnson and Day in the world rankings but with only Spieth, with half his tally, also a multiple major champion.
McIlroy was in 17th place on the Forbes 2016 listing of the world’s highest-paid athletes, with cumulative annual earnings of $42.6 million. Three golfers were above him – Mickelson, Spieth and Woods – while Andy Murray languished luxuriously with $23 million in 74th place. (Cristiano Ronaldo was top with $88 million.)
Unusually for such an eminent sportsman, McIlroy is not ludicrously ultra-competitive; the kind of top athlete who might routinely say something like: “Oh, it matters to me to win at everything. I wouldn’t even let my ten-year-old beat me at table football.” McIlroy told Jaime Diaz for Golf Digest: “I feel like I’ve developed a ruthless streak on the golf course over the last few years. But I’ve no real ambition to be the best at anything else. If we’re playing a game of cards, or a game of pool, I’d happily let someone win just to keep them happy.”
Just not on the golf course. Last December, Paul McGinley, McIlroy’s fellow Irishman and his Ryder Cup captain at Gleneagles, told The Times: “Rory is the most entertaining golfer in the world. He’s got an edge; he’s got charisma that the others don’t seem to have. He’s got a bit of swagger about him; an arrogance.”
Later that month, Jack Nicklaus gave an interview to Iain Carter, the BBC’s golf correspondent. “Rory is one of those young men who has got a tremendous amount of talent [but] if he wishes to dominate and go forward, he’s got to improve. Certainly he has all the tools to be able to do it; it is just whether he has the desire and the willingness to give up some other things. Whatever Rory does he has established himself as one of the great players that has ever played the game. [A questionable proposition at this stage of Rory’s career, I’d have thought, but, hey, he’s Jack Nicklaus and I’m not.] Whether he wants to be the greatest player to have played the game, that’s his determination and it’s his decision whether he wants to make that effort to try to do that.”
When Andy Murray won the BBC’s SPOTY award for the third time in December, there was some media contemplation that he might be the UK’s greatest-ever athlete – this although he has three Grand Slams compared to McIlroy’s four major championships. (It’s simply easier to leave Nick Faldo out of this discussion.) OK, so McIlroy has rather double-bogeyed the Olympics while Murray is a double champion, but he’s been on three victorious Ryder Cup teams versus one Davis Cup. He has an MBE, which he was awarded in the 2012 New Year Honours. Murray had an OBE until the most recent gong-fest, since when he’s now a knight.
McIlroy will be 28 in May, 11 days before Murray turns 30. At best the latter likely has four years left at the top. McIlroy could have 14. But what he needs soon, by which I mean this year if it’s not going to feel like (another) failure, is not a tap on the shoulder with a sword but a tap-in for a fifth major. And then a sixth. And then…
You can follow me on Twitter @robrtgreen and also on my other blog: f-factors.com
This article originally appeared in a slightly different version in the April 2017 issue of Golf World