After winning four times in 2019 and racking up 19 top-10 finishes from 25 starts to win the PGA Tour Player of the Year award, it’s been a memorable season for Rory McIlroy.
In a wide-ranging interview on Golf Channel’s “Morning Drive” he revealed his belief that he’s found a formula that will allow him to make his 30s even more successful than his 20s and confident that that his major drought will end sooner or later.
Here are some of the highlights of that conversation.
Q. What was the significance of this year as you look to kickstart the next decade of your career?
I have always talked about wanting to be more consistent and play well, week in, week out. I think I have done that this year and figured out a formula that works for me — 19 top-10s with four wins sprinkled in there.
The level of golf I have played this year on a consistent basis is what I was most proud of.
Q. Why was your decision to play more in the US so important to you?
I think people forget I have been on tour for 12 years. Travel does get a little old, and I wanted to try and reserve some of my energy. You can’t keep hopping back and forth but I didn’t want to wear myself too thin.
The schedule change has helped a little bit. You can focus all your energy on one tour and switch over and focus on the end of the year over in Europe.
Q. Several of your peers feel you were the best player of the decade. How does it feel to hear them say that?
It’s pretty cool. It’s been a fast 10 years. It seems like yesterday I holed that putt at Quail Hollow to win my first PGA Tour event. I try to get up the morning and do the right things all the time.
Be professional about my career, do the right things all the time, be respectful of other players, be respectful towards the game, put the work in. If you do that, it starts to add up.
Q. When Brooks Koepka said you hadn’t won a major since he’d been on the PGA Tour and didn’t view it as a rivalry, was that disrespectful?
Not disrespectful. We sit in these press conferences and we all get asked about other players. It’s as if there is no good answer. What do you say? What don’t you say? I’ve been in Brooks’ position before and thought, ask me about me.
Don’t ask me about other players. This isn’t the gossip channel… He is trying to do his thing, and I am trying to do mine, just as everyone else is. JT, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm.
There are so many great players in the world right now. I think the game is in really good shape and I don’t think it’s about Brooks and I.
Q. What was the big lesson you learned from Royal Portrush?
I didn’t mentally prepare for that first tee shot as well as I could have. I was trying to play it down as just another event. I got on that first tee, and it felt different. I don’t want to say nervous, but it was like, ‘Whoah, this is happening.’ I have been thinking about it for six years, and now it is actually the time.
Q. What lessons have you learned at Augusta over the last five years that can give you the edge in April?
Augusta is very much a second shot golf course. As much as people say it should suit me with my driving, it’s easy to drive the ball in the fairway there. So it is a second shot golf course and sometimes it baits you into trying to do too much or it goes the other way, and you can be too defensive.
There have been so many different ways I have tried to play Augusta from taking advantage of the par-fives to focusing on the 4th and 11th holes, which have historically been my worst holes. If I focus on one thing, I will do it well, but then I will neglect another thing and struggle there.
I feel like I have figured out all the parts, and it’s about putting it all together. Each and every year I go back there, I think I am a step closer.
Q. What's like being around Tiger Woods for his re-emergence?
It's awesome… I have seen him in some pretty tough places. We sat and had lunch in March '17, and he was struggling to get up and move and walk around. And then you fast forward two years, and he is winning the Masters. It is just unbelievable. I still to this day don't think people give him enough credit for what he has been through to get back to where he is. If it's not the best comeback in sports, it's definitely one of them.
Q. You said in February that your 30s can be better than your 20s, do you take that statement back or double down?
I will double down. I already have three wins in my 30s, so I have got off to a good start.
Q What will be your plan in 2020?
I know how to play the golf course and have played great rounds there. More than anything else, it’s a mental thing. If you put yourself in a position to win, it’s about embracing that challenge, relishing that and making the most of it. I think I have all the tools, it’s just about putting them all together.
Q. What are the challenges of staying hungry or keeping that edge sharp?
Great question. In my 20s, when I came into financial success, comfort, resetting goals, it goes back to when you are a kid. Your dreams are of hoisting trophies and becoming the best player in the world. The money part of it never came into the equation.
What I have learned is that no amount of money is going to change my drive to become the best player in the world. That’s not the reason I got into the game or play this game. The rewards are nice, and you can set your family up and generations in the future, and I struggled with that for about a year.
In ‘13, I was a little lost. What am I playing for? What are my goals? You realise it isn’t everything. You can have the houses, have the cars. But it’s not about that. It’s about fulfilling the potential you have and becoming one of the best players.
Now I realise what’s important to me. As I mature and get into my 30s, it’s about trying to make the most of the talent that I have and about fulfilling my potential.
Q. What’s your biggest goal going into 2020?
Honestly, it’s a continuation of what I have been able to build this year — the consistency. I had so many chances to win this year. I won four times which is still a really good total but maybe to just convert a few more and be more efficient when I do get myself into contention.
Q. Phil Mickelson has opted to play in Saudi Arabia, but Tiger Woods has reportedly turned down $3 million, and you were reportedly offered $2.5 million, and you are not going. Why?
I don't want to go. I'd rather play a couple of events on the west coast rather than travel all the way to Saudi Arabia. It's just not something I would excite me.
Q. Is it complicated because of the political issues?
One hundred per cent. But I had no problem watching the world heavyweight title fight on Saturday and cheering on AJ. [On Saudi regime] You could say that about so many countries where we play not just Saudi Arabia. I just don't want to go and travel that far. The atmosphere on the west coast looks much better. I'd much rather play in front of big golf fans and play in a tournament that really excites me.
Q. You were reticent, some might say almost hostile, about golf in the Olympics. What’s taken you there?
It’s a maturing thing. The Olympics put me in an awkward position, and I had to dig deep within myself and ask myself questions I had never asked before. Where do loyalties lie? Where am I from? What does that mean to me? What does the other side mean to me?
It weighed heavily on me and then I started to resent the Olympics because of what it put upon me. I realised I can’t please everyone. If you go through your lifetime trying to please everyone, you are going to be miserable yourself. So I had to do what was right for me. I didn’t want people to prohibit from experiencing something I had never experienced before.
Q. What are you most looking forward to?
One of the big things I am looking forward to is spending the week with Shane Lowry. We have a good relationship. He has obviously had a great year winning at Portrush. Shane’s wife, Wendy, is going to come and my wife, Erica. I’m looking forward to the camaraderie.
Q. What’s your view of what happened with Patrick Reed at the weekend?
The live shot you just showed there isn’t as incriminating at the slow-mo. I think it’s hard. You try to give the player the benefit of the doubt. He is in there and trying to figure out what way to play the shot. Obviously, he has moved some sand, so it is a penalty.
But I don’t think it would be as big a deal if it wasn’t Patrick Reed. For a lot of people within the game, it is almost like a hobby to kick him when he is down. I have had great interactions with Patrick. I certainly don’t think there was intent there.
That shot right there does look bad. But it’s very, very hard for me not to think that he didn’t feel what he was doing. But again, I’d rather try to give someone the benefit of the doubt and just say it was a mistake, take your penalty, move on.
I’d never want to think that a fellow competitor is intentionally trying to improve a lie. I think we could give him the benefit of the doubt one time, or twice maybe, and move on. If he has learnt his lesson and he doesn’t do it again, I guess that’s a good thing.
Q. Have you ever witnessed cheating with your own eyes?
There have been things I have seen that have been questionable.
Q. Did you report the person?
No… It’s a very awkward position to be put in. If you see something, do you say it to an official? Do you say it to a player? I don't like confrontation. I will do everything I can to stay away from confrontation. I'd be much more comfortable saying to someone after they've played — in the locker room, having some lunch — hey I saw something on the sixth green, I didn't like what I saw. Be a little more careful with your marker, or whatever it may be.
Q. Is there anything Ernie Els can do to help his team win this week?
For me, all the best teams I've been a part of have been player-led. That's why the US has such an advantage this time. You have a playing captain [in Tiger Woods]. The best teams I have been on have been when the captain has been a relevant player on tour. Thomas Bjorn still played, Paul McGinley, Monty… Tom Watson was a disaster. He couldn't relate to the players. So having a captain that relates to the players and still has that competitive respect is a big thing. Poulter, Westwood, Sergio, these guys that are leaders in our team are the heartbeat of why we've been so successful.
Q. Wrong or not: The first tee at Royal Portrush was the most nervous you have ever been?
On the golf course? It’s up there. I’d say the only thing that comes close to that is standing on the first tee at Augusta with a four-shot lead. I was really nervous that day. It was more that I was almost shell shocked. I had been waiting for this moment for six or seven years, and all of a sudden, it was real.
This isn’t just a dream any more, it has turned into reality. It’s the most ‘deer in headlights’ that I’ve been on a golf course.
Q. Tell me I'm wrong. Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer who has ever lived.
You're not wrong. He has not won as many majors as Jack, but he is going to win the most PGA Tour events. He might still surpass Jack's major total, but I think in the history of our game, nobody has played better golf than Tiger Woods. In 2000-2001 that whole stretch, no one has played the calibre of golf he played then.
Q. Can Tiger pass Jack's 18 major wins?
It's going to be hard. I see him winning another major. I think he will compete at Augusta until he's into his fifties. He will have the chances. He is healthy, so there is no reason why we can't be optimistic about that.