Whether it’s playing golf without fans, potentially merging tours or educating the world about racial injustice, Rory McIlroy delivered a relatively simple message on the eve of the PGA Tour’s return at Colonial Country Club.
“It’s what we have to do,” McIlroy said in Fort Worth, Texas yesterday.
As the world slowly reopens from global pandemic shutdowns simultaneous to international protests about racial injustice ignited but the death of George Floyd at the knee of police, golf takes a rare turn at centre stage this week as a live major sports diversion.
While world No. 1 McIlroy says he is “feeling as good as I can” about his game after the longest layoff of his golf career, the greater global concerns remained at the forefront of his thinking along with the resumption of his day job.
Coming from Northern Ireland, which has experienced division and unrest during McIlroy’s young lifetime, gives him an additional perspective of the issues.
“A great word that I’ve sort of been thinking of over the last couple of weeks is tolerance,” he said. “I think everyone can just be a little more tolerant, and a little more educated and not as ignorant.
The fact that there does seem to be this real will to change and have reform is amazing. It’s been a great thing to see, and I hope it continues to be in the conversation. Yeah, as we move forward, I think people have learned a lot over the last few weeks, and hopefully we’ll see things change as time goes on.
Social change isn’t the only thing on McIlroy’s mind. With the European Tour still on hiatus for another month, McIlroy said he is concerned about its financial health and would support cooperative or eventual merger plans between the European and PGA Tours.
“If anything, I think this pandemic has highlighted the fact that the game of golf at the highest level needs to be simplified,” he said.
“I think there’s too many funnels, there’s too many channels. I don’t know if everything being under one umbrella is the solution, but definitely fewer umbrellas I think is a way forward.
“I’ve sort of been calling for it for a while. Yeah, I would like to see that. I think for the health of both tours, a world tour is something I’ve always wanted, but it had to be done the right way.”
Meanwhile, we will certainly see a change as the PGA Tour returns after a three-month hiatus this week at the Charles Schwab Challenge.
Excluding the majors, WGCs, Players and PGA Tour play-off events, it’s the strongest regular tour event field in 13 years since the 2007 Wells Fargo Championship, which was won by then world No. 1 Tiger Woods.
The field is stacked with each of the top five players in the Official World Golf Rankings and 21 of the top 25.
It illustrates how hungry the players are to get back to work — even without fans on the property leaving players and caddies calling the competitive environment “the bubble.”
“It’ll be a little eerie that you’re not getting claps and you’re not getting feedback from good shots and stuff like that,” McIlroy said.
But it’s what we have to do. It’s what we’re going to have to live with for the foreseeable future.
While it’s one thing for a regular tour event, McIlroy doesn’t believe the Ryder Cup will take place in September unless there are fans allowed.
“I think there’s enough people against it within the game, so that’s why it’s either going to be played this year with fans, if we can do that, or going to have to figure out kicking it down the road to a later date,” he said.
Resuming where they left off after only one round of the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass in March, the made-for-TV 1-2-3 grouping of McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka will tee off together this afternoon.
Frozen atop the world rankings for three months, how their games thaw out is anybody’s guess.
“It’s hard to say anymore who’s the best in the world after not competing for three months,” Rahm said of the rankings. “Since we’ve been stopped, I don’t think those numbers matter a lot anymore. I think we only can come back and prove that we deserve that spot.”
McIlroy and Rahm were arguably the hottest golfers in the world before the shutdown, while Koepka was struggling to regain traction after injuries late in 2019 and a slow start to the season cost him his No 1 ranking in February.
Koepka called the forced layoff a “blessing in disguise,” saying his game is “a million times better” and that he feels “like a new person.”
“Yeah, I’ve got eyes on Rory and that’s the goal to get back to No 1 in the world,” Koepka said. “I dug myself a hole getting injured.”
Rahm didn’t touch a club for seven weeks as he worried more about the health of his family in Spain during quarantine. McIlroy spent months riding his Peloton, doing jigsaw puzzles and laying by the pool during quarantine.
“It’s probably the most tanned my pasty Irish skin has ever been,” he said.
But since shaking of the rust during his televised skins match at Seminole Golf Club last month, he’s focused on getting back to the competition he’s missed beyond money games in Florida with tour mates Shane Lowry, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler.
“I’m excited to be back on the road and doing what I’m supposed to do, play golf and compete,” he said. “I think that’s the one thing I’m looking forward to the most and the one thing I’ve missed the most over the past few months is just the competition.
“Nothing can compare to getting out there and playing under tournament conditions, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m as sharp as I can be coming in here, I guess.”