Rory McIlroy climbs to very top despite controversy in professional golf

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Rory McIlroy can jab with the best of them.

These have been tumultuous times on the PGA Tour that featured very public sparring with the controversial LIV Golf. McIlroy has been the non-official spokesman for the PGA in defending against the challenge that has seen some big-name players defect for guaranteed money. McIlroy continued to carry that mantel on Sunday after winning his record third FedEx Cup playoff championship in dramatic come-from-behind fashion. He erased a six-stroke deficit in the final round to overtake Scottie Scheffler, who led the entire tournament until the 16th hole on Sunday.

McIlroy missed the green at No. 16. His chip shot was sure to run well past the hole, but it hit the flag stick and a par-saving putt gave him the lead for good at 21-under par when Scheffler carded a bogey to fall to 20-under.

“I took advantage of that little break with a good putt to make par there, and that was the first time in the whole tournament that I had the outright lead,” McIlroy said. “On the 70th hole is a nice time to take the lead of a golf tournament.

“Yeah, or the 52nd hole if you play somewhere else.”

The sudden remark was a clear shot at LIV - Roman numerals for 54 – the number of holes played on the Saudi-back startup tour.

Maybe the strong comments meant a little more after winning the PGA Tour playoffs and its $18 million first-place purse.

McIlroy has accepted the role of being one of the outspoken golfers against the defectors. He said it has not been a burden and accepts that others defer to him on the matter as a 15-year tour veteran.

“If you believe in something, I think you have to speak up, and I believe very strongly about this,” he said. “I really do. I hate what it’s doing to the game of golf. I hate it. I really do. Like it’s going to be hard for me to stomach going to Wentworth in a couple of weeks’ time and seeing 18 of them there. That just doesn’t sit right with me.

“So yeah, 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.”

After just a week off following his historic win, McIlroy will play three straight weeks in Europe. The first of those tournaments will be the BMW PGA Championship at the Wentworth Club in Surrey, England. McIlroy knows just how many of the LIV-committed golfers will play that tournament.

On Wednesday, before the Tour Championship started, Commissioner Jay Monahan announced several changes for next year that were clearly designed to answer some of the draw of LIV Golf.

The changes include 20 elevated events for the top-20 players with purses of at least $20 million, more Player Impact Performance money, fully except players guaranteed $500,000 a year, player stipends and a two-year exemption for those who make the Tour Championship.

McIlroy joined the PGA Tour’s Executive Board this year. Good timing. At last week’s BWM Championship FedEx Cup playoff event in Delaware more than 20 of the current top players met to discuss the future. It appears that nearly all of those in attendance – perhaps only Cameron Smith who is rumored to be leaving for LIV Golf as soon as this week – came to an agreement on a united path moving forward.

“I think that was a huge turning point in all of this, and I think all of us getting on the same page, that -- look, there’s opportunity in every challenge, and that was an opportunity for us to all get together,” McIlroy said of the meeting. “And as you said, it is so individualized, but how can we all sort of work together to move the thing forward.”

McIlroy was asked following his victory whether the individualist game of golf has turned “tribal” over the past several months with snipes, snide remarks and potential lawsuits between the two tours. The PGA Tour has suspended players who left for LIV Golf events.

McIlroy hopes that all the issues between the tours will be settled by next season. The PGA Tour will go its way. LIV Golf will go its way.

With all that has been going on of late, McIlroy found solace in between the ropes. And, clearly, a lot of success capped with Sunday’s huge victory.

“In all honesty, golf has been the escape for me over the last few weeks,” McIlroy said. “It’s been, I get inside the ropes, no one can get to me, and it’s my escape from this other stuff that’s going on.”