Monday, June 17, 2024

Rory McIlroy’s record third FedEx Cup a deserved, fitting crown for the PGA Tour’s off-course champion

When athletes retire following years of devotion to their craft, it’s common to see them trade their uniforms for suits as they seek to reshape the game that once shaped them. Some players move on to become coaches and others join the media as analysts, but there’s a select few who move into roles as primary decision-makers of their leagues or the teams within.

In an unprecedented year in professional golf, Rory McIlroy has taken an even more unusual path. He has become the rarest of all titans, somebody who is just as talented and influential behind the scenes as he is in front of the camera. On Sunday, perhaps the best player in the world defeated the same number of people on the course at East Lake Golf Club as he has off the course this year: all of them.

Overcoming a triple-bogey start to the FedEx Cup Playoffs finale and what (at one point) was a 10-stroke deficit to Scottie Scheffler, McIlroy won the 2022 Tour Championship, captured a record third career FedEx Cup and brought home a cool $18 million grand prize.

On Sunday, McIlroy started six back of the Masters champion, who was trying to become the first golfer to earn more than $30 million in a single year on the PGA Tour (event earnings plus FedEx Cup prize money) and also the first to win five times in a PGA Tour season since Justin Thomas concluded 2017 with his own FedEx Cup.

McIlroy’s momentum halted immediately with a bogey at the first Sunday, but he plastered the field for the remainder of the day, playing the next 17 holes in 5 under. At one point, in the middle of the round, he made five birdies in a nine-hole stretch — leading to a back nine battle between Scheffler and McIlroy with $18 million on the table — but the hinge point of the entire tournament came at the 15th and 16th holes.

On the 220-yard par-3 15th, McIlroy safely hit an iron to the left side of the green, away from the water surrounding it. Then he buried that 31-foot birdie putt, a nod to what has easily been the best putting year of his career. One hole later, following a club-twirled, airmailed wedge out of a fairway bunker, McIlroy hit his pitch off the stick and canned an 8-footer for par that made him the first golfer in the field to jump ahead of Scheffler to the top of the leaderboard.

For the first 69 holes of the tournament, McIlroy either trailed or was tied; he suddenly found himself in the lead for the final three.

Scheffler didn’t have the game we saw all season, the one that will likely make him the 2022 PGA Tour Player of the Year. He shot the worst round of the day with a 73. McIlroy’s 66 followed a 63, which he completed early Sunday as Round 3 concluded after being suspended for inclement weather Saturday evening. He shot matching 67s the first two days.

It was, like most McIlroy victories, a show. It was also not even close to his best performance this month.

McIlroy and Tiger Woods led a players-only meeting at the BMW Championship last week. The end result of getting most of the top golfers in the world in the same room — and taking ownership of the future of the PGA Tour — was an announcement from commissioner Jay Monahan that the PGA Tour’s top players have committed to playing 13 PGA Tour events together starting in 2023.

Rory has been adamant, both publicly and privately in 2022, that LIV Golf is not good for the sport. No matter your stance on that assessment, it undeniable that McIlroy has put his time, effort and energy into advocating for the PGA Tour while trying to help reshape professional golf for the next 10, 20 or 50 years.

“I’ve been in the thick of things,” he said. “I guess every chance I get, I’m trying to defend what I feel is the best place to play elite professional golf in the world. It’s in some ways fitting that I was able to get this done today to sort of round off a year that has been very, very challenging and different.”

A cynic might say McIlroy has plenty to gain from a thriving PGA Tour. That’s absolutely true. His partnership with Woods in TMRW Sports, an organization that will host simulated competitions in affiliation with the PGA Tour, stands to make both men a lot of money. However, one must also acknowledge that Tiger and Rory (especially together) don’t necessarily need the PGA Tour’s blessing to consolidate power and wealth. TMRW could go anywhere and be successful, and the duo collectively could have cashed in with LIV Golf to the tune of somewhere around $1 billion.

When it comes to the sport, McIlroy is exactly who you want him to be and perhaps the very person you envision. Affectionately, he is a golf sicko. He dives deep on Data Golf, just like you and I. He scans the LIV Golf lawsuit for humorous tidbits, just like you and I. If he wasn’t one of the 25 best golfers of all time, it’s easy to see him commenting and bantering about all of this, just like you and I.

There is nothing more compelling in an athlete than genuine humanity and authentic passion. Not to go full “Santa Claus isn’t real,” but most athletes play sports because they’re good at them and are paid exceedingly well to showcase that talent, not because doing so stirs their souls. And most certainly don’t care about how what they do right now affects the through line of an entire sport.

McIlroy has put in that aforementioned time, effort and energy on myriad fronts. He is not the commissioner of the PGA Tour, but the number of powerful people in his orbit — and the way he’s able to galvanize them toward a shared vision — is enough to convince you that he would be a great one.

This came to a head last week during the BMW Championship when a Player Advisory Council meeting (McIlroy is the president) was followed by aforementioned McIlroy- and Woods-led players-only meeting. Deeply engaging in these off-course arenas — especially ones as emotionally taxing as the fight against LIV Golf — can easily affect one’s play on the course, and yet, McIlroy has not only done both well, he’s absolutely thrived. Even with his mind so occupied off the course during this stretch, McIlroy has played some of the best golf of his entire career.

The numbers are staggering.

  • 16 starts on the PGA Tour
  • 3 wins
  • 10 top 10s
  • Top 8 finishes at all four majors
  • Over $28 million earned (tournament winnings, FedEx Cup, Comcast Business Top 10)
  • 2.58 strokes gained since Jan. 1, not including this week (not even Scheffler has been better)

Perhaps none of this is particularly surprising. McIlroy has always been extrinsically motivated, and an existential professional golf crisis in which the way the entire infrastructure functions is up in the air certainly qualifies as extrinsic motivation. Plus, golf has become a reprieve.

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

What’s maybe more surprising than McIlroy playing great golf is that someone who is generationally talented at this game would also be capable of casting such a strong vision while leading the game into the future with equal parts grace and conviction. McIlroy has clearly been the right man to meet this moment. 

“If you believe in something, I think you have to speak up, and I believe very strongly about this,” said McIlroy about the PGA Tour’s future amid the threat of LIV Golf. “I really do. I hate what it’s doing to the game of golf. I hate it. I really do. … 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.”

Great players are not so commonplace. The same can be said for leaders who are willing to pour themselves into something they truly believe. Someone who can do both well, especially asynchronously, represents an unusual, perhaps even curious scarcity.

The world of golf has received and mostly embraced the rarest of all characters in McIlroy. Someone who is both dynamic and trustworthy enough to lead his peers as they mold the future while still playing at a high enough level that he continues to shape its present. Someone who is both good enough for his voice to matter and bold enough to use it. Someone who may not have asked for this battle, but whose golf may have unintentionally been elevated to a place that means he’s the only one who can wage it.

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