The LIV Golf Tour has been good for Rory McIlroy. Perhaps no-one has benefitted more from the new competition than its fiercest enemy.
McIlroy’s anger over the defection of leading players to the Saudi-backed tour seems to have lit a fire under him. It’s sparked a stirring renaissance which culminated last weekend in perhaps the most remarkable victory of his career.
When the season began it seemed McIlroy’s best days might be behind him. Ranked ninth in the world, he’d spent much of 2021 outside the top ten. The seven tournaments won in the previous five years paled in comparison with the 17 amassed during the 2012-2016 period when he’d been at his peak.
Back then he’d seemed the heir apparent to Tiger Woods. Now he’d become just one more very good player. McIlroy appeared resigned to his fate, famously commenting, “Maybe I’m just not as good as I used to be,” after a disappointing performance at the 2020 USPGA Championship extended a six-year Major drought.
A legion of exciting young players — Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler, Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa et al — made McIlroy seem like yesterday’s man though he only turned 33 in May. When he burst into tears as Europe were hammered by the USA in last year’s Ryder Cup it felt like a nadir.
Standard operating procedure these days is to praise such outbursts for their ‘emotional honesty’ and declare this as a great moment in their perpetrator’s career. Few were inclined to do that for McIlroy. The mantle of victim doesn’t sit comfortably on him.
McIlroy may be the only Irish sports star ever whose presence in the world top ten is taken for granted. We expect more from him because his talent is so great. That may be unfair but genius has its penalties as well as its perks.
The seeds of McIlroy’s revival were sown by the stunning final round 64 which earned him second place in the Masters, his best Major finish since 2018. But by the beginning of June he’d still moved up just one place in the world rankings.
Then, on the first day of that month, LIV announced the list of players for its first event. Eleven days later McIlroy won the Canadian Open to jump to third place in the rankings, carding a stunning 62 in the final round to beat Tony Finau by two strokes.
Before his final round McIlroy predicted that, “What’s going to happen over the final 18 holes here is going to be more entertaining than what other golf was played this week anywhere else.” After winning he noted, “Twenty-first PGA Tour win, one more than someone else. That gave me a little extra incentive today.”
That the ‘someone else’ was Greg Norman, CEO of LIV Golf suggested McIlroy’s victory was no coincidence. He had been the most fervent critic of the new tour since describing Phil Mickelson’s justification of hooking up with the Saudi regime as “naive, selfish, egotistical and ignorant.”
He knew that if he didn’t deliver on the course those criticisms would be thrown back in his face. Indeed Norman responded to McIlroy’s jibe by suggesting the Irishman should try to emulate his feat of 331 weeks as world number one.
Since then, McIlroy has mixed forthright comments about LIV with performances displaying renewed hunger. The Major drought has not ended, but four top-eight finishes suggest it won’t last much longer.
If McIlroy could have one round back, it might be the concluding one of the British Open. Joint first as the last day began, he did little wrong. You couldn’t accuse him of bottling it or blowing up. But the two Camerons, Smith of Australia and Young of the USA, produced exceptional rounds of 64 and 65 to edge past him.
That late eclipse appeared to deny McIlroy a season-defining victory. Last week’s Tour Championship seemed extremely unlikely to provide one. A handicap system which takes FedEx Cup points into account left him six shots behind world number one Scheffler before a ball was struck.
A first hole triple bogey made the task even tougher. The gap was nine at the half-way stage and even a superb 63 by McIlroy still left him six back entering the final round.
Yet, paired with Scheffler for the final round at East Lake, he steadily hunted down his prey. Put under pressure by his playing partner, the world number one’s composure deserted him as McIlroy turned the psychological screw like he’d done in his 2014 double-Major winning season.
Nothing summed up his resolve more than the 30-foot birdie putt he nailed on the 15th. On the previous hole a bogey saw McIlroy fall behind after working so hard to draw level. Of late, he’d seemed to regard such mishaps as signs that it wasn’t his day.
This time the recovery was immediate. On the 16th he took the single shot lead he held to the end, becoming the first three-time winner of the FedEx Cup for good measure.
It’s been said that McIlroy’s season was all the more extraordinary given the amount of work he’s doing behind the scenes to help the PGA Tour fight off the LIV challenge. In fact this work seems to function more as an inspiration than a distraction. Having something extra to fight for has taken him out of his comfort zone.
McIlroy’s implacable opposition to LIV seems based on nothing more complicated than a conviction that the new departure is morally wrong. He seemed genuinely shocked by the cynicism of Mickelson’s comments. And he’s intelligent enough to realise the reputational damage the sport he loves will suffer if its stars are seen to privilege the bottom line above everything else.
He is fighting the good fight though the defection of world number two Smith suggests the battle might be a losing one. The number of top players leaving may soon reach a critical mass which means the Majors feel obliged to reach some accommodation with them.
McIlroy is not for turning on the issue, saying that “it’s going to be hard to stomach”, seeing the LIV players at this week’s BMW Championship. “I hate what it’s doing to the game of golf, I really do,” he said, “If you believe in something I think you have to speak up.”
By taking the honest route McIlroy has done himself and his country proud while seeking to save the honour of his sport. On and off the course it’s been a great year for Rory McIlroy.
Mageean moves to higher level with sparkling Diamond run
Ciara Mageean’s victory in the Brussels Diamond League meeting on Friday is the finest Irish middle distance performance since the heyday of Sonia O’Sullivan, whose 27-year-old national 1500m record was lowered from 3.58.85 to 3.56.63.
Just a fortnight ago Mageean’s silver medal run in the European Championships seemed a career high. But this put that outing in the ha’penny place as she knocked 3.29 seconds off her personal best.
In Munich Mageean stuck with the powerful Laura Muir until the Scot pulled away in the home straight. In Brussels it was Mageean who found another gear over the last 100 metres, holding off Muir, the Commonwealth and European champion and world bronze medallist, with Ethiopia’s Freweyni Hailu back in third.
There may be even more to come from the 30-year-old at next year’s worlds in Budapest and the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Kelly Holmes won Olympic 1500m gold at the age of 34 in 2004 while there have been four other 30-something medallists in the event since then.
Watching an Irish athlete beating a world class field in an event with such a great tradition here was something genuinely special. Not just O’Sullivan but Ronnie Delany and Eamonn Coghlan would have been proud of this run.
The greatest show on earth is about to kick off again
The greatest show on earth, aka the NFL, gets underway this week with the Mayo of American Football widely tipped to finally break their Super Bowl duck.
Four-time runners-up, the Buffalo Bills were edged out at the quarter-final stage last season by Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in one of the best games ever played. With superstar quarterback Josh Allen getting better all the time, the AFC East side will be greatly strengthened by the addition of linebacker Von Miller.
One of only three defensive players in the last 20 years to become Super Bowl MVP, with the Denver Broncos in 2016, Miller played a key role in last season’s Los Angeles Rams title-winning campaign. The Chiefs and the Rams should be among the Bills’ main rivals along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where 45-year-old Tom Brady returns after one of the shortest retirements in sporting history.
The most likely dark horses may be the Los Angeles Chargers whose quarterback Justin Herbert looks poised to join Brady, Mahomes and Allen in the elite ranks.