Rory McIlroy has shed the burden of boardrooms on the PGA Tour to focus on playing golf. Can a freed-up McIlroy finally complete the last leg of the career Grand Slam at Augusta? 

Somtimes, in the process of compiling a feature, a line comes out of an interview that forces a news story of its own. In March, your correspondent and the other editors of Australian Golf Digest set out to gauge how the golf world – fans, tour players and commentators – would react if Rory McIlroy won the green jacket to become just the sixth player to capture the career Grand Slam. With an Open Championship, US Open and two PGAs, the popular Northern Irishman is the only active player with a chance to complete the slam at Augusta National. Among the players we spoke to, LIV Golf star Talor Gooch had a take we weren’t quite expecting when he spoke to us in late February. And so, it spawned an instant news story on our website. “If Rory goes and completes his [career] Grand Slam without some of the best players in the world, there’s just going to be an asterisk. It’s just the reality. I think everybody wins whenever the majors figure out a way to get the best players in the world there.”  

Gooch later clarified his comments on his X (formerly known as Twitter) account to suggest he meant “the best players” missing from the Masters field included Louis Oosthuizen and Dean Burmester, who recently won on the DP World Tour playing outside of their LIV schedule.

The remarks came five days after Joaquin Niemann was the only LIV player to receive one of three special invitations to the Masters. Augusta National rewarded the Chilean for travelling more than 70,000 kilometres between November and March in search of enough world-ranking points to get in the Masters. He fell short of the top-50 mark, but Augusta National’s tournament committee appreciated his effort.

We published the Gooch story in the context of the Official World Golf Ranking denying LIV Golf points for its events, which essentially locks players like Gooch and Oosthuizen out of the Masters, and it went viral around the world. It became the subject of a parody song by popular golf musician Sam Harrop titled “Asterisk”, set cleverly to the tune of “Out of Reach” by Gabrielle. It was spoken about on multiple podcasts and global television networks and reported in numerous news articles. McIlroy himself was asked about Gooch’s comments at the PGA Tour event in Palm Beach, Florida. McIlroy was diplomatic in his answer. “To be fair to Talor, whoever did the interview sort of led him down that path. The Masters will invite whomever they want. Joaquin went down to Australia and won [their Open], he was in Oman, Dubai… he’s been chasing his tail around the world to warrant an invite and I don’t know if the same can be said for Talor.”

How Rory rates Down Under 
Australian Golf Digest conducted a survey on social media asking if former world No.1 McIlroy would be the best possible Masters victor for the game of golf right now, or whether another player would make a bigger impact in a green jacket. One follower, Nick Kingstone, responded, “I’d love to see it happen (finally) but I suspect it would make him even more outspoken than he already is. Wish he’d just let his golf do the talking. I actually want Cam Smith or [Ludvig] Aberg to get the jacket. Would do more for the game in the long run.” Another user said they’d love to see McIlroy win but didn’t think he could. Others then broke into a debate about whether Min Woo Lee or Smith would be a better victor, and that’s why we love Aussie golf fans.

You might be thinking, why even question how the golf world would react to arguably its most universally beloved player etching his name into history at the game’s most famous tournament? Is that looking a gift horse in the mouth? Yes. Undoubtedly, the “McIl-slam” or “Four-y McIlroy” would be an epic and popular outcome for golf. It would lift the profile of golf back to a level on which mainstream sports held our game before a two-year period of squabbling about money and divides among professional tours turned off a percentage of fans. There’s no denying that. But there’s also no denying some fans have been offput by McIlroy’s outspoken stance against LIV Golf during the war of words between the PGA Tour and the Greg Norman-led league that’s funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which also owns a majority stake of English Premier League football club Newcastle United FC, as well as naming rights to the ATP Tour in tennis, among other sporting ventures. McIlroy was the chair of the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council and was critical of LIV Golf itself as a golf product and league, saying in July 2023 that “if LIV Golf was the last place to play golf on earth, I would retire”. He’s entitled to that opinion and the rebel league is certainly not for everyone. 

Some of Australian Golf Digest’s Facebook followers remarked that they, “Can’t be bothered by Rory’s stance,” or, when he won the Dubai Desert Classic in January, “If he’d leave the politics of golf alone and just concentrated on his own golf I’m sure he would have won a lot more tournaments.”

McIlroy himself has acknowledged he got a little swept up in the emotion of the divide in pro golf; a schism he “hated [for] what it’s doing to the game”. He had a point; it certainly did drive a wedge into the pro game. But recently, McIlroy has softened his tone on the topic. In 2023, he also resigned from the PGA Tour’s Policy Board to focus on competition. In the UK, on the “Stick To Football” podcast with superstars Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher and Ian Wright in January, McIlroy said, “I think, at this point, I was maybe a little judgemental of the guys who went to LIV Golf at the start, and I think it was a bit of a mistake on my part because I now realise that not everyone is in my position or in Tiger Woods’ position.” McIlroy also said he understood Ryder Cup teammate, Jon Rahm, joining LIV last December and even called it a “smart business decision”. Fellow Ryder Cupper Tyrrell Hatton followed Rahm to LIV in January. 

McIlroy’s comments over the past two years may have been divisive for some, but he remains the most revered star in golf post-Tiger Woods’ prime. His golf swing is poetry in motion. He’s easily the most physically talented golfer since Woods. He is honest and compelling to watch and listen to. He even keeps an eye out for Australian golf, as you’ll read further down. Many would like to see a happy ending to his legacy in the majors since it collectively fell in love with his brand of bombed drives and laser-long irons in 2011. That year, the Northern Irishman dusted himself off from a disastrous stumble in the final round of the Masters in April, where he shot a final-round 80 after taking the 54-hole lead, to win the US Open in June by eight shots. He added the 2012 PGA Championship, and in 2014 the Open Championship and another PGA.

How Australia’s best would feel about Rory wearing green
An overwhelming majority of the golf world would love to see McIlroy join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Woods as the only men to have completed the career Grand Slam. His peers, both PGA Tour and LIV stars, as well as commentators, say McIlroy winning the Masters would be among the most meaningful events in golf’s history.

Cameron Smith would know; there haven’t been many more meaningful events than the 150th Open at St Andrews. He won that by one shot with a final-round 64 to claim his first major. McIlroy was proactive in informing Smith about changes to the PGA Tour’s structural future as he was making the switch to LIV in August 2022. Smith feels McIlroy deserves a career slam. 

“I think [it would be] really good,” Smith told Australian Golf Digest. “Out of every player over the past 15 or 20 years, he’s probably one of three guys that you’d think really deserve it. I’d be happy for him.”

Min Woo Lee, the younger brother of Minjee Lee, told Australian Golf Digest only days before his runner-up at the PGA Tour’s Palm Beach Gardens event that McIlroy was the player he looked up to. Lee is 25 and wasn’t tuning into golf until the end of Woods’ pinnacle and the beginning of McIlroy’s.

“Everyone talks about Jack Nicklaus and Tiger, but Rory was my idol growing up,” Lee says. “He was the younger guy [relative to Woods and Nicklaus]. It would be very special for golf and very special for him. Winning all four majors in golf would be an amazing achievement. I think it would also be a big monkey off his back. He’s had good chances at the Masters [including a second place in 2022]. If I don’t win, I’m happy if he wins. Rory is a really nice guy; I only think good things of him. He’s helped a lot of the tour players with advice. [The past two years] he’s had a lot to say, but I respect where he comes from; he’s been one of the faces of golf for a long time. I think he copped a lot of crap for what he said, but no one else was speaking up. I respect that and I think he’s done a really good job. He’s copped a lot of the backlash.”

Despite McIlroy and LIV Golf commissioner Greg Norman trading barbs in the media, the two-time Open champion from Australia says he would be among the first to congratulate the golfer from Holywood, Belfast, should he don the green jacket.

“When Rory missed out on the [2011] Masters, when he hit that [snap hook] tee shot on 10, I sent him a message because I felt his pain – and he responded,” Norman told this publication. “And if he wins, I’ll say congratulations on achieving the slam. That’s sportsmanship and that’s the humility of the game.” 

Ewan Porter, a two-time Korn Ferry Tour winner-turned commentator on the PGA, DP World and LPGA tours, says the adulation for McIlroy’s game is, and always will be, strong. 

“I would be thrilled to see Rory complete the Grand Slam at Augusta National this month,” says Porter, a Sydneysider. “It’s hard to believe Augusta was the place he should have first tasted major glory 13 years ago; it’s a golf course tailor-made for him with his exceptional ball-striking. Two years ago, he stirred up an array of emotions when he holed that memorable bunker shot [for birdie] on the 72nd hole [to finish second]. In the moment, we thought it might have won it, but Scottie Scheffler had other ideas. 

“Yes, Rory has been divisive and controversial the past two years since LIV’s inception. But he appears to be taking a more measured approach to things now and, personally, he’s one of the nicest people I’ve spoken to and easily one of the best interviews in golf. If it’s not an Aussie slipping on the green jacket, I’ll be very happy if it’s Rory.”

Rory’s major call on Australia
For those Aussie fans who grew tired of his divisive comments, it’s worth noting two things. The first is that McIlroy was asked about LIV by reporters more often than he brought it up himself. The second is that in McIlroy’s reconsideration of how pro golf should operate after LIV’s introduction, he has called for a global golf tour to include Australia. He has mentioned the Australian Open several times, having won the 2013 edition at Royal Sydney.

“Some of the national opens, [we need to] try to revitalise some of those that have some great history in our game and a lot of tradition, like the Australian Open,” he said in November. 

In January in Dubai, the 34-year-old said: “The Australian Open, for example, should almost be the fifth major. The market down there is huge with potential. They love golf. They love sport. They have been starved of top-level golf. And the courses are so good. 

“Revenues at the PGA Tour right now are about $US2.3 billion ($A3.4 billion). So how do we get that number up to four or six ($A9bn)? It is by looking outward. They need to think internationally and spread their wings a bit. My dream scenario is a world tour, with the proviso that corporate America has to remain a big part of it all. But there is an untapped commercial opportunity out there.”

Perhaps it’s ambitious to dream of the Australian Open being held in the same regard as the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s when Nicklaus, Player and Arnold Palmer would travel Down Under to tee up in what many considered the fifth biggest tournament in golf. But McIlroy’s presence would certainly help restore its glory, as would the tournament’s rumoured return to Melbourne’s iconic Sandbelt region at the end of this year. McIlroy is a known superfan of the golf around Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs and would draw enormous crowds in Melbourne. With, or without, a green jacket. 

Photographs by Mary Beth Koeth