It’s been quite a year for Rory McIlroy. Three wins, another FedEx Cup title, a return to world and European no.1, and a major role as an outspoken critic of LIV Golf, have thrust the 33-year-old from Northern Ireland into the global spotlight like never before. But what does the man in question think of his status as pro golf’s senior statesman as we head into 2023 and his 16th season on tour?
When you first set out on your professional career back in 2007, what ambitions or expectations did you place on yourself, and how do look back on what you have achieved so far?
It may sound a bit clichéd, but I think I just took it one step at a time. I wanted to get my European Tour card and once I did that, I wanted to play in the majors and the World Golf Championships. I didn’t start off with grand ambitions. I just wanted to become the best golfer that I could, and whether that meant I was at a certain level or the levels I have reached, I’ve just always tried to get the best out of myself.
When I look back over the last 15 or so years, I know that I have had a pretty amazing career and it has provided me with an amazing life and has enabled me to do some amazing things, but you still have to remember where you came from. I have to pinch myself sometimes and try to put a little perspective on things, as I know that I am incredibly privileged to be in the position I am today. I’m getting to live out my childhood dreams, and not everybody gets to do that, so it’s an unbelievable position to be in.
You’ve been in great form this year and had a great run of results over the last few months. What are your main takeaways from 2022?
Yeah, it’s been great. I feel like almost every time I’ve teed it up this year, I’ve been in contention on a Sunday. You’re obviously not going to win every week, but if you give yourself a chance at least every week, that’s a really good start. As long as I keep putting myself in good positions, keep giving myself chances to win, that’s what I’m really happy with.
Getting back to world no.1, given where I was a year ago, also makes me feel proud. I’ve worked so hard over the last 12 months to get myself back to this place. I feel like I’m enjoying the game as much as I ever have. I absolutely love the game of golf. When I go out there and I play with that joy, the results have been good and long may that continue.
Another thing that I’m really proud of is that I don’t feel I have to rely on one aspect of my game to get me into contention. If my driving isn’t quite there, then my putter bails me out. If my putter isn’t there, my iron play bails me out. I feel like when you get to this level, it’s like, okay, how can you make those incremental improvements to get better, and I think my goal has been to just become a more complete golfer and I feel like I’m on the journey to doing that. I’m as complete a golfer as I feel like I’ve ever been, and hopefully I can continue on that path.
What specifically brings you joy out on the golf course?
Just the journey of trying to get the best out of myself, I think that’s the satisfying thing. I never feel like I’ve figured this game out – I don’t think I ever will figure it out – but every day I wake up trying to get closer. That’s the beauty of this game and why we all keep coming back for more.
It’s obviously been a year of great highs, but how long did it take you to get over the disappointment of not winning The Open Championship this year, especially after getting into such a strong position?
Once The Open was done, I just reset my goals on what I thought a successful season would look like, and that’s what I went off and did and that’s what I was able to achieve. Of course I was disappointed not to win at St Andrews, but you lose more often than you win in this game, so I couldn’t afford to sit around moping in the middle of the season, I had to look forward and see how I could make the best of the rest of the year, which I think I have been able to do.
I feel like any time I’ve had a setback in my career, whether it be missing a cut, missing a chance to win a tournament, trying to get my first win on the European Tour or win my first major championship, I feel like I’ve been able to bounce back from some adversity. It’s been a learning curve, but I think my resilience, and my ability to respond to setbacks, is one of the things that I’ll look back on my career in 20 years’ time and be most proud of.
With the commitment to play 20 events on the PGA Tour next season, it’s hard to see how you’re going to find so much time to play in Europe. What is your schedule going to look like on the DP World Tour next season?
Pretty much the same as it has been the last few seasons to be honest. I’ve set my life up in the States, and that’s where my family is now, so the PGA Tour is where I will continue to play the majority of my golf, but I will continue to play in DP World Tour events where it fits my schedule and where I feel like I can and should play.
I’m an ambitious person. I want to play where the best players are playing and for the last decade or more, the best players have predominately played in the United States. There are a lot of changes going on right now in the schedules, but that probably won’t fully roll out until 2024, when the PGA Tour starts its calendar year season, rather than the wrap-around season which it currently operates.
I think that’s when will properly start to see the benefits of the strategic partnership between the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour. It will unlock more of a global schedule with some of the bigger European events incorporated into that January to August time frame. The two tours are going to run side-by-side and while that means I’m probably not going to play in the Dutch Open anytime soon, or some of the smaller events, more co-sanctioned events are going to attract stronger fields and that can only be good for sponsors and for fans going forward.
Do you see a time when the PGA Tour, the DP World Tour and LIV Golf will sit down and sort it out, or have we reached an impasse and golf will be forever split?
I’ve always said I think there is a time and a place where everyone that’s involved should sit down and try to work together. It’s very hard for that to happen right now when there are all these lawsuits going on. There’s obviously this court case that’s going to happen in February with the DP World Tour and then the one in the States later next year, so that makes it very difficult to know what’s going to happen. There’s a natural timeline to let temperatures just sort of settle down a little bit and people can maybe go into those mediations with cooler heads and not be so emotional about it all.
But look, I don’t want a fractured game. I never have. The game of golf – at the professional level – is ripping itself apart right now and that’s not good for anyone. It’s not good for the players on whichever tour their on. In an ideal world, you want the best players competing against each other all of the time, or at least for more of the time, and currently that isn’t happening. So, I’m all for everyone sitting around the table and trying to figure something out.
Do you feel that LIV Golf events should be ascribed world ranking points?
I would certainly want the best players in the world ranked accordingly. I think Dustin Johnson is somewhere around 100th, so it’s not an accurate reflection of where he is in the game. But at the same time, you can’t make up your own rules. There are criteria to be met and everyone knows what they are. I have no problem with LIV players getting world ranking points, but the events have to meet the criteria laid down by the OWGR, and if you don’t meet the criteria, it’s going to be hard to justify why you should have them.
Are you surprised by how much you’ve come to be seen as an unofficial spokesperson for the established tours? Do you feel comfortable in that role?
I don’t know. I’m speaking up for what I believe in. I guess that’s the only thing I can say. Again, I’m speaking up because I believe in the game of golf, and look, the other side will say the exact same thing. But I don’t see how having 48 hand-picked players is growing the game in any way. There have to be pathways. There has to be a meritocracy. You need to give someone the ambition or opportunity to know that if they are playing on the Challenge Tour that in one, two or however many years’ time, that they can be challenging for major championships, which are the pinnacle of our sport. There is this pyramid and this funnel that has been so good for golf for so many years, and I don’t think it’s a broken system. So, whenever something like this comes along that is incredibly disruptive and they are saying things about how golf needs to change, it doesn’t need to change. Golf is the most wonderful game in the world. It doesn’t.
Could there be things that we could do to make it more entertaining from a TV perspective? Of course. That’s something that I think we can do from inside the walls. I don’t think we need to go outside of what we have already to figure that out.
But the game of golf post-COVID has been thriving, and I just want to make sure that it continues to thrive. It’s incredibly divisive, and does LIV Golf bring more eyeballs on to golf? Probably, at the moment, yes, because people are interested in the soap opera of it all, but that’s not golf. The most interesting thing about LIV over the last six months or so have been the rumours about who is going and who is not going. It’s not about the golf. It might be at some stage, but right now it’s the rumour mill that’s fuelling it. So when you you’re watching the PGA Tour or the DP World Tour, you’re watching because of the golf and you’re watching to see who is going to win tournaments that have context and mean something. That’s why I’m speaking up.
Finally, the European Ryder Cup team is most likely going to have a very different look to it next year, with a new generation of players coming through and some of the older players having moved over to LIV Golf or fallen out of form. How do you rate Europe’s chances against what, on paper, always looks like a strong US team?
As you say, our Ryder Cup team is going to look very different next year, and so will the American team to a certain extent. There’s going to be quite a few rookies on both teams, I would imagine. Europe’s had an unbelievable run in the Ryder Cup for the past couple of decades, and we haven’t lost a home leg in 30 years. The US team is very, very strong and doesn’t have lot of scar tissue compared to some of the past teams. They have a lot of their pairings locked down and because of the Presidents Cup, they get a chance to do it every year, which I think benefits them hugely. I think the Hero Cup, which replaces what was once the Seve Trophy, will be very useful for us next year and help us all to get a feel for the team and for Luke [Donald] and the guys to help formulate a plan.
As I said a few weeks ago, when I was playing in the Italian Open, it is time for a rejuvenation of the European Ryder Cup team. We need to blood some new guys, and a home Ryder Cup is the best way to do that. You’ve got the crowd acting as the 13th player on your side, and if you can introduce some of these new guys to the team then it’s the best way to go about it. But, of course, we’ll be the under cogs going into Italy and with how young this American team is, it looks like they will be very strong for a very long time. Either way, I’m excited. It’s a new challenge, a fresh challenge, they’ll be a lot of new faces and I’m excited to be a part of it.