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Rory McIlroy’s ‘dream scenario,’ cleared mind and new plan to be sharp heading into the Masters

January 09, 2024
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Warren Little

DUBAI — He hails from Northern Ireland. He lived in Dubai for four years early in his professional career. His home now is in Florida. And he is building a house in England that will eventually become his family’s permanent base. So it comes as no surprise to hear that, for Rory McIlroy, the end result of the negotiations currently distracting the PGA Tour, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and myriad private equity companies, needs to be international in nature.

Speaking behind the 18th green at Dubai Creek, where later this week he will open his 2024 schedule by competing in the DP World Tour’s Dubai Invitational, the four-time major champion’s “dream scenario” was multi-faceted. Although no longer directly involved after his resignation from the PGA Tour Policy Board, McIlroy clearly continues to give the future of professional golf some serious thought.

“Going forward, if everything is on the table, venues have to be a big part of the consideration,” he says. “We need to make sure the courses are worthy of the players who are going to be competing. My dream scenario is a world tour, with the proviso that corporate America has to remain a big part of it all. Saudi Arabia, too. That’s just basic economics. But there is an untapped commercial opportunity out there. Investors always want to make a return on their money. Revenues at the PGA Tour right now are about $2.3 billion. So how do we get that number up to four or six? To me, it is by looking outward. They need to think internationally and spread their wings a bit. I’ve been banging that drum for a while.”

There is also a romantic side to what would be McIlroy’s brave new world. Sentimental too. A past winner of the Irish Open, Scottish Open, Canadian Open and Australian Open as well as the Open Championship and U.S. Open, the 34-year-old would love to see national titles elevated to what they once were.

“Whether they are rotated on the new global circuit, or we go with the same ones every year, I’m OK with either,” he says. “The Australian Open, for example, should almost be the fifth major. The market down there is huge with potential. They love golf. They love sport. They have been starved of top-level golf. And the courses are so good.

“The South African Open is another I’d have in the mix. Then you have places like Singapore and Hong Kong and Japan. What a market Japan represents. That would be another opportunity. We could end up with something that resembles Formula One, but with a little more of an American presence. Throw in the four majors and you have a brilliant schedule for the top 70-100 guys, whatever the number is. We’d have, say a 22-event schedule. That would look pretty good to me.”

While no one inside golf’s upper echelons has been more publicly critical of LIV Golf and it’s 54-hole shotgun start format than McIlroy, there is one aspect of the 2-year-old league he deems worth saving.

“If it is done like the IPL cricket model, team competition has a chance in golf,” he maintains. “I’ve said what I’ve said about LIV. I still think it is a confusing product. So what they need to do is lean more into the team stuff. If you want to make your team franchises valuable, especially if you’re not going to get World Ranking points, then dive deep into team golf. I could see an eight-event schedule with four events in the spring and four events in the fall. If it was an IPL-like team thing, I would enjoy it hugely. There is an opportunity there to do more within the bigger ecosystem.”

Shifting gears, McIlroy moved smoothly into another team event, this one closer to his heart. And he began with a mea culpa. Having called for a change in the European Ryder Cup qualifying system in the wake of Jon Rahm’s departure to LIV, the seven-time participant owned up to not knowing the rules. As he is still a member of the DP World Tour, Rahm remains eligible for Bethpage Black next year.

“I was factually incorrect in my comments in the wake of Jon’s going to LIV,” admitted McIlroy, who voted for Rahm in the recent PGA Tour Player of the Year poll (and for Ludvig Aberg as rookie of the year). “He’s still a member of the DP World Tour, so he is still eligible. I’ll take that one on the chin. All I was really trying to say was that we need Jon Rahm on the European team, whatever way that can happen. It’s not that we absolutely need him. But our chances are clearly better if he is there.”

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Warren Little

Turning to his own prospects for 2024, McIlroy—who has a new driver, 3-wood, 5-wood and putter in his bag here—is happy to be making a more low-key debut than is usual.

“This week is an easy warm-up for me,” he says. “I’m here as a favor to Abdullah [Al Naboodah, Chairman of Al Naboodah Group investments and a non-executive director for the European Tour Group], who is a great friend of mine. I lived here for four years, and I’ve played in what they call ‘The Dogfight’ here at the Creek, the roll-up skins game they have every Friday and Saturday. I like Dubai. I love coming back here. And it represents a nice way for me to ease my way into a new season before I defend the Desert Classic next week. I’m staying onsite. So I can roll out of my bed onto the range and the putting green. It’s an extra week of preparation, although I obviously still want to play well.”

That desire for peace of mind is, of course, no coincidence. Free of the responsibility that came with his various positions on the PGA Tour, McIlroy is able to be “more selfish,” and focus solely on his own game and life.

“Getting out of all things political has definitely cleared my head,” he says. “I don’t feel like I’m caught up in it all. For the last two years, every time I’d be walking from the locker room to the range, I’d be stopped by someone with a couple of questions. I get that I made myself the go-to guy. I was on the board and knew what was going on. So I felt like I could speak to it. Now, if someone asks me, I can honestly say I don’t know what is going on. I can’t give the best opinion anymore. Because they aren’t based on absolute facts.”

As for what lies ahead in 2024, thoughts inevitably lead to McIlroy’s continuing quest for a green jacket. Victory in the Masters would make him only the sixth man to complete the career Grand Slam.

“The Masters is the Disneyland of golf,” he says. "You go there, put the Mickey Mouse ears on and get into what it is. And when you leave you snap out of it. My big thing about Augusta is just to go in there playing well. The weeks before are important just to get me feeling like I’m in good form. This year, in fact, I’m going to play more before the Masters. It will be my ninth or 10th event of the year. Previously, it’s been my sixth or seventh. I’ll hopefully be a bit sharper and know exactly where my game really is.”

And how much does winning play on the mind?

“I’ve just about said all I have to say about the Masters,” he shrugs. “I’d love to win it. If I don’t, I probably will look back and think I missed out on something. I did an interview a few years ago when the interviewer asked if I felt like I deserved a green jacket. I don’t deserve anything. The game has given me more than enough. I have to go out there and earn it. People can say the course suits my game all they want, I still have to go out there and play the golf. I’m on a pretty strong list of players who have won three of the four majors. But I’d like to be on the shorter list of those who have won all four.”

And with that he was off to lunch. A nice relaxing one on the verandah.