When a freakishly talented toddler by the name of Rory McIlroy was chipping golf balls into washing machines for fun, many predicted he would one day go on to become the game’s best player. What they didn’t know then was he would also become its conscience.
The Northern Irishman’s exploits with club in hand need no further analysis – he’s a green jacket away from ticking off the career Grand Slam at just 31 years of age [see our exclusive chat with him here]. That’s rarified air.
The stories about his acts of generosity (he gave his caddie $1 million after winning the FedEx Cup) and kindness away from the fairways (he regularly engages in meet-and-greets with fans) are also the stuff of legend. Yet it’s the four-time Major winner’s raw honesty, thoughtfulness and leadership when quizzed about golf’s most pertinent issues that’s elevated him to the unofficial role of golf’s moral compass.
If the 2020 golf season is remembered for nothing else (apart from carefully navigating COVID-19), it’s that golf found a genuine leader among its playing group, a new voice of reason that’s not afraid to share sharp, logical opinion on, well, anything and everything.
Here are a just few highlights of the Rory rhetoric we’ve been blessed with since January:
On not wanting to improve his lie at the PGA Championship after receiving a free drop when Australia’s Jane Crafter, commentating on-course for ESPN+, stepped on his ball:
“The rule is try to replicate the (original) lie. No one really knew what the lie was, but if everyone is going around looking for it, it obviously wasn’t too good. At the end of the day golf is a game of integrity, and I never try to get away with anything out there.”
The takeaway: Rory insisted on pushing the ball much deeper into the rough and went on to two-putt for a bogey. Meanwhile, days earlier, Bryson DeChambeau argued with rules officials about what constitutes a fence, and even tried to get a free drop from ants!
On the PGA Tour’s decision to cancel this year’s Players Championship midway through the tournament due to coronavirus safety concerns:
“It’s the right decision, of course it’s the right decision. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I think it’s a hard one because you look at volunteers out here and a lot of volunteers are in their 60s and 70s and retired, and you don’t want someone that’s got the virus that passes it on to them and then they’re susceptible. So it’s a scary time, and I think that the PGA Tour have made a step in the right direction.”
The takeaway: Common sense is a common theme with Rory responses.
On the R&A and USGA’s Distance Insights Project Report:
“If they want to try to contain what we do as touring professionals, I’m all for that. The people that are giving the architects the money to build these golf courses have this grand ambition of maybe having a tour event one day. Building these golf courses on these massive pieces of land means having to use so much water, so much fertiliser, pesticides, all the stuff that we really shouldn’t be doing nowadays, especially in the climate we live in and everything that’s happening in our world. You look at what happened in Australia… with fires and global warming – I think golf has a responsibility to minimise its footprint as much as it possibly can. For me, I think the sustainability aspect of what they’re trying to do is very important and that’s the one thing I would definitely stand behind.”
The takeaway: Was that really a call for bifurcation from one of the PGA Tour’s longest hitters who averages 285 metres off the tee?
On whether he would consider joining the cashed-up Premier Golf League:
“For me, I’m out. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I don’t like it. The one thing as a professional golfer that I value is the fact that I have autonomy and freedom over everything I do. I read a thing the other day that said if you take the money, they can tell you what to do, so if you don’t take the money, they can’t tell you what to do. And I think that’s my thing – I’ve never been one for being told what to do, and I’d like to have that autonomy and freedom over my career, and I feel like I would give that up going to play for the other league.”
The takeaway: McIlroy’s flat-out rejection was a crushing blow for the proposed breakaway tour, which needed a big fish – say, a Rory or Tiger – to become a legitimate alternative. The pandemic has only further grinded things to a halt.
On whether he would ever tee it up with US President Donald Trump again, via the McKellar Golf podcast:
“I don’t know if he’d want to play with me again after what I just said. I know it’s very self-serving of me to say ‘No’ and if I don’t, then it means then I’m not putting myself in position to be put under scrutiny and that I’m avoiding that. But I probably wouldn’t, no.” (McIlroy copped flak after playing golf with Trump in 2017)
The takeaway: Shunning the leader of the free world… that’s huuuuge! Who can, ahem, trump that for boldness?
McIlroy shares similar traits to the late, great Peter Thomson, who was hailed the “outdoor intellectual” for his ability to articulate logic and wit in a package that matched his effortless swing. Our Thommo was always reliable for straight advice steeped in erudition and experience. McIlroy is now that international statesman, and he’s embracing it.
“At this point, I think I have somewhat of a responsibility [to lead],” he says. “Not just for myself but for the other players. I’ve been around the top of the game for a long time now, more than a decade, and I think being at the age I am and being at the stage of life where… I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin and in my own beliefs and values and convictions. So yeah, I have been outspoken about a number of issues in golf over the past couple of years, and I’m happy about that. I want to be a voice out there that can at least put forth some good commentary and a decent opinion on things, and that’s what I try to do.”
It’s an example many in the game would do well to listen and learn from.