Rory McIlroy is golf’s most interesting man – both on and off course

We come here today not to bury Rory McIlroy. Even when he duck hooks it in the rain with his very first shot in this Tour Championship, his tee ball jumping the East Lake fencing, making a break for Alston Drive, you dare not put pennies on his eyes and declare him the Late, Great Two-Time FedEx Cup Champion.

For say this for the man, he can author scorecards that read like a Jack London adventure. McIlroy should have been all afterthought after going triple bogey-bogey on his first two holes Thursday, as he already was spotting the leader six shots in this staggered scoring mutation of a tournament. All he did with his next four holes was go birdie-bogey-birdie-eagle. He went 4-under 31 on the back nine, tied for the lowest score on that stretch. He had but four pars for the day, those being so very ho-hum, and not particularly useful.

Yes, he lost ground to FedEx points leader Scottie Scheffler (who shot a sporty 65 on Thursday), but at eight back, McIlroy can’t be fully counted out of becoming the first to win three of these FedEx Cup finales. We’ll leave his status at highly unlikely – somewhere between the Marlins winning the NL East and Arby’s going all vegan.

Understand that leaders sometimes don’t play the best golf. See just about every president since William Taft and every CEO who has squandered thousands at a resort golf school.

But, wherever else this week at East Lake takes McIlroy, we come here to appreciate his standing in a game that never has needed a strong voice more.

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

The first time I heard the Irishman sound like a real leader, and not just another cardboard-cutout professional golfer, was during a 2017 pre-tournament press conference at Arnie’s place in Orlando.

The question concerned the ancient Muirfield Golf Club in Scotland – in the face of losing its place in the British Open rotation – finally relenting and allowing women as members. And rather than serving up the usual platitudes that thrive behind the country club guardhouse, McIlroy had himself an honest, emotional take.

He focused on the fact that it took several centuries and multiple ballots of the membership for the women’s measure to pass. “In this day and age, where you’ve got women that are like the leaders of certain industries and women that are heads of state and not to be able to join a golf course?” he tsk-tsked. “I mean, it’s obscene. It’s ridiculous.”

Nobody else on the PGA Tour was using language that pointed. In fact, they often act out here as if having an opinion is a two-stroke penalty.

There would be times when McIlroy’s thoughts would irritate some constituents, as in 2020 when he said that while playing golf with Donald Trump a few years earlier was a pleasant enough experience, he’d never do it again. And went on to question how the then-President was handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

But consistent from then, today and forevermore, one of the first traits of being a leader is not being afraid to lead.

That’s the trait currently making McIlroy the most valuable presence on the PGA Tour.

With the arrival of the LIV Golf circuit, no player has stepped up and rejected it so squarely as McIlroy.

Declaring a year ago when LIV was just an embryotic bad idea that he wanted to be “on the right side of history,” McIlroy consistently has resisted the idea of taking money from a Saudi-backed enterprise. No one has expressed loyalty to the PGA Tour more eloquently than he.

And while doing it, he managed to strike a tone that was respectful, not sanctimonious.

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

As in the press room Wednesday, when he was asked why he has chosen to make himself a spokesman in this group of committed, conservative independent contractors.

“I care deeply about our sport. I care about its history. I care about its legacy. I care about the integrity of the game. There’s a lot of players out here that are like-minded and share those same views,” he said. “I felt it was just right.”

As in the post-round interview Thursday, when asked how it was playing with Cam Smith, reputed to have one foot out the clubhouse door on his way to LIV Golf. (McIlroy even counseled the young Australian after his British Open victory, attempting to sell him on a future in the PGA Tour).

“Cam and I get on really well,” McIlroy said. “Always have. I keep saying, no matter what decisions are made or what choices are made by anyone, it doesn’t make them a bad person. Does it make me disagree with them? Of course it does. But I disagree with a lot of people that I like and love.”

There was so much pride evident in the way McIlroy shook off the clumsy start and rescued his round Thursday. No one should have been surprised. No one should been in a hurry to dismiss him. This is who he is.