It may not be in the gift of the PGA Tour to predetermine event winners but it is 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 of a year in which he has played some of his finest golf. As far as the PGA Tour is concerned, McIlroy is the perfect ambassador.
Stout defenses of that environment against the continuing threat from the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf have led to the 33-year-old turning from superstar into statesman. He delivers the odd reminder that he can still play a bit, too. As LIV prepared to announce its latest batch of recruits – 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’s the most competitive. It’s got the best players. It’s got the deepest fields. I don’t know why you’d want to play anywhere else.”
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 – for the time being at least – are permitted to play on what was formerly the European Tour.
“If you believe in something I think you have to speak up, and I believe very strongly about this,” McIlroy said. “I really do. I hate what it’s doing to the game of golf. I hate it. I really do. It’s going to be hard for me to stomach going to Wentworth and seeing 18 of them there. That just doesn’t sit right with me.
“So yes, I feel strongly. I believe what I’m saying are the right things, and I think when you believe that what you’re saying is the right things, you’re happy to stick your neck out on the line.”
As of now 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. Locker-room exchanges may be interesting. McIlroy and Garcia were once particularly close.
A fascinating aspect of McIlroy’s career is that tumult routinely seems to inspire him. “In a way, it’s my life,” he said. “I don’t really know any different. In all honesty golf has been the escape for me over the last few weeks. It’s been, I get inside the ropes, no one can get to me. It’s my escape from this other stuff that’s going on. I guess I’m able to switch on and off pretty well. I can compartmentalise things.
“I’ve had to learn that the hard way over the years, too, 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 from, and I think just all of that combined helps me sort of navigate where we are right now.”
It seems a pity 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 pulled approach shot cracked against a stand. McIlroy held his nerve to see off Scheffler and Im Sung-jae by one shot. Incredibly he opened the first round at East Lake with a triple-bogey seven. “I know that my best stuff is good enough to win any tournament against anybody on any golf course,” McIlroy said. “When you win and when you do things, it energizes you more than anything else. It makes you want to do it more.”
This year’s painful point came on Scotland’s east coast, where McIlroy was tied for the Open Championship lead after three rounds but closed two shy of Smith. Falling short stung McIlroy, whose 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 a tough one to get over. This softens the blow a little bit. It doesn’t make it that much 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 couple of wins but I was just waiting for something. Maybe this was it.” Onwards to Wentworth, where the off-course theater could be as dramatic as anything on it.