Three generations of PGA Tour commissioners were gathered in the same room on Tuesday before the flagship tour event. If they convened to recruit Jay Monahan’s eventual successor, the unanimous choice of the moment would be the reigning Players champion Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy is the most popular man in Ponte Vedra Beach headquarters, and not just because the tour’s returning Player of the Year has a chance to make history and become the first Players champion to repeat the feat this week at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course.
World No. 1 McIlroy has also endeared himself as the vocal leader against the proposed rival Premier Golf League.
McIlroy made Monahan’s day a few weeks ago before the WGC Mexico Championship when he declared “I’m out” upon further review of the PGL proposed particulars.
“I was proud and pleased on that given day, and candidly, as I’ve talked to a lot of top players in my one-on-one conversations, I’ve heard a lot of the same,” Monahan said of McIlroy’s commitment to the PGA and European Tour status quo. “But I thought that was a moment of leadership.”
McIlroy said he hasn’t made a point of being a maverick leader to his fellow pros, but the role has developed naturally as he’s grown up at the top of the game.
“At this point, I have somewhat of a responsibility,” McIlroy said. “Not just for myself but for the other players. I’ve been around the top of the game for a long time now, over 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.
The comfort in his own skin is exuded every time McIlroy steps up to the podium. He’s both funny and forthcoming. When asked about what moment in last year’s final round finally put him over the top on a Sawgrass course he’s often struggled with before, he cited two big birdie putts on Nos. 12 and 15 to help him keep pace on the leaderboard with veteran Jim Furyk.
“I like big putts and I cannot lie,” McIlroy said to elicit laughter with his Sir Mix-a-Lot reference.
McIlroy also said he’s gradually acquired a taste for the course designs of the late Pete Dye, the architect of Sawgrass, Kiawah and Crooked Stick where McIlroy has collected wins. He said he made peace with his discomfort competing on Dye courses in 2010 at Whistling Straits, where he finished tied for third in the PGA Championship despite his negative first impression when he arrived.
“I hated it,” he said. “I had to tell myself, look, you just need to like it for one week. … I never liked how he made you feel on the golf course in terms of hiding things and angles, and it makes you a little bit uncomfortable, which is obviously his plan.
“They’re like beer when you’re younger,” he said of Dye designs. “You sort of don’t like it but then you think it’s cool to drink it and then you sort of acquire a taste for it.” What McIlroy has not grown comfortable with is accumulating top-five finishes without winning. He’s played four events in 2020 with finishes of T3, T5, 5 and T5. His streak of seven consecutive top-5 finishes worldwide was extended Sunday when he struggled in the harsh conditions at Bay Hill in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
His results mirror a year ago when he finished sixth or better in five consecutive starts to the year before breaking through at The Players.
Despite his recent frustrations, McIlroy refuses to get bogged down in the results and continues to trust the process that has him in contention on a weekly basis as the Players kicks off a stretch of marquee monthly events including the majors, Olympics and Ryder Cup in September.
“The only way to not win is to concentrate on the results,” he said. “If I can do a few different things in my golf game just a little bit better, those thirds and fifths will hopefully turn into wins.”
Meanwhile, Monahan spent much of his annual Players Championship state-of-the-tour address dealing with threats from a spreading pandemic to a rival golf tour.
Of most immediate concern, the commissioner said plans to stage the WGC Dell Match Play Championship in two weeks at Austin Country Club continue “full speed ahead” despite coronavirus concerns that prompted the host city to cancel a popular music festival.
Monahan also announced that this week’s Players Championship purse will increase from $12.5 million to $15 million, with the winner taking home $2.7 million. The new broadcast rights revenue increase to $7 billion through 2030 foreshadows more compensation increases over the next decade, which Monahan hopes will prevent more players to follow McIlroy’s lead and turn their nose up at the rogue PGL.
“I see us getting to $25 million (at The Players), and I see that through the term, if not earlier in the term,” Monahan said, noting that the prize fund for the season-long FedEx Cup which doubled from $35 million to $70 million last year could climb to “perhaps $100 million or more” in the not-too-distant future.
“That’s not a commitment, but that’s, generally speaking, the kind of growth that I expected for us to see for our athletes,” he said.
“Our players have always had the opportunity to play for meaningful prize money and for meaningful consequence out here, and that’s only going to continue to grow and will grow at a faster rate thanks to that great support that we have. … We know we have a winning formula, and that’s something that we’re now in a position to accentuate.
“We couldn’t feel better about our position and our ability to get stronger.”