It may not be in the PGA Tour’s gift to predetermine event winners, but it’s safe to assume Rory McIlroy’s latest FedEx Cup triumph met with approval in the corridors of power.
McIlroy left East Lake $18m richer having overturned Scottie Scheffler’s 54-hole lead of half a dozen shots. For the Northern Irishman there is further validation from a year in which he played some of his best golf. As far as the PGA Tour is concerned, McIlroy is the perfect ambassador.
Strong defenses of that environment against the continuing threat of the LIV supported by Saudi Arabia golf led to the 33-year-old going from superstar to statesman. He delivers the odd reminder that he can play a little too. As LIV prepared to announce its latest set of inductees – including the Open champion, Cameron Smith – McIlroy became the first golfer to win a trio of FedEx Cups.
“This is the best place in the world to play golf,” McIlroy said. “It is the most competitive. It has the best players. It has the deepest fields. I don’t know why you would want to play anywhere.”
McIlroy’s next stop will be at the DP World Tour’s PGA Championship, which begins on the West Course at Wentworth on Thursday week. There he will come face to face with LIV rebels, who – at least temporarily – are allowed to play on what used to be the European Tour.
“If you believe in something, I think you have to speak up, and I believe very strongly in that,” McIlroy said. “I really do. I hate what it’s doing to the game of golf. I hate it. I really do. It will be hard for me to stomach going to Wentworth and seeing 18 of them there. That just doesn’t sit well with me.
“So yes, I feel strong. I believe what I’m saying are the right things, and I think when you believe what you’re saying are the right things, you’re happy to put your neck on the line.”
Currently the Wentworth entry list includes the high profile LIV converts Lee Westwood, Sergio García, Patrick Reed, Martin Kaymer, Richard Bland, Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter. Key exchanges can be interesting. McIlroy and García were once particularly close.
A fascinating aspect of McIlroy’s career is that turmoil routinely seems to inspire him. “In a way, it’s my life,” he said. “I really don’t know anything else. In all honesty golf has been the escape for me for the last few weeks. It’s over, I’m getting into the ropes, no one can get to me. It’s my escape from this other thing that’s going on. I guess I’m pretty good at switching on and off. I can take things apart.
“I’ve also had to learn that the hard way over the years, but I’ve had a lot of experience, and this is my 15th year on Tour. I have a lot of good experiences, bad experiences, things to learn, and I think just all of that combined helps me kind of navigate where we are now.”
It seems a shame that this volatile scene overshadowed McIlroy’s exploits in Georgia. Scheffler, the world No. 1, crumbled to a closing 73 in McIlroy’s company. The champion’s 66 was not without drama, including on the final hole where his drawn approach shot cracked against a putt. McIlroy held his nerve to eliminate Scheffler and Im Sung-jae by one shot. Incredibly he opened the first round at East Lake with a triple-bogey seven. “I know my best stuff is good enough to win any tournament against anybody on any course,” McIlroy said. “When you win and when you do things, it makes you stronger than anything else. It makes you want to do it more.”
The sore point of this year came on the east coast of Scotland, where McIlroy was tied for the Open Championship lead after three rounds but closed two shy of Smith. Falling short stung McIlroywhose wait for a fifth major title stretches back to 2014.
“I’ve been knocking on the door so much this year,” McIlroy said. “St. Andrews was really hard for me. It was hard to top. This softens the blow somewhat. It doesn’t make it any easier to get over but it’s great to end the season on a high note like this.
“The major championships are the pinnacle of our sport. This is close behind. I just felt so close all year. I had a few wins but I was just waiting for something. Maybe this was it.” On to Wentworth, where the off-course theater could be as dramatic as anything on it.