KAPALUA, Hawaii — A new year tends to bring new perspective, new beginnings, new goals and hopes and, with that, a sense of leaving some things behind, too. Which is where we find Rory McIlroy today as he prepares for his debut in the Sentry Tournament of Champions here at idyllic Kapalua Resort.
McIlroy, in a sense, is embarking on what might be considered the next phase of his career. A new reality of his own making. The four-time major champion from Northern Ireland is all but leaving the Old World for the New World, shedding his European roots to concentrate on a life in America and a career with much more emphasis on the PGA Tour.
The duel tug of heart and ambition outweigh everything else. Easy decision.
“Easy,” he echoes. “My life’s here [in the U.S.]. I have an American wife. I live in America. Honestly, I enjoy it here more. The way of life is easier. The weather. The convenience.”
And, he hopes, this choice he’s made will afford him a more convenient way to pursue his career, to perhaps win the Masters and complete the career grand slam, and to add to his 14 PGA Tour titles, a number that has virtually stalled, having won only once in the last 24 months. That came last March thanks to a final-round 64 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, giving him entry to this winner’s only field.
Of which he is finally taking advantage. No surprise. McIlroy, who turned pro in 2007 and joined the PGA Tour in 2010, had been talking for a few months about changing the way he has been doing things. This year, that will include plans to compete in the week before each major, to feel sharper in those four major events beginning in April at August National Golf Club. In addition, McIlroy likely won’t make a start on the European Tour until July, just before the Open Championship at Royal Portrush in his home country.
“I’ve always been trying to split my time [between two tours], and this year … I’m sick of always showing up in Florida 100th in the FedEx Cup,” he said. “Not that it’s a big deal. I’ll always play enough golf to give myself a chance at the end. I just don’t like seeing that number beside my name. The rest of the guys have played 12 PGA Tour events, and I’m playing my first or my second … you’re not in a good position starting off.
“You go to Europe and get paid a nice amount of money to start the year,” added the 29-year-old, who also owns eight wins on the European Tour and one in Australia. “I want to switch it up. I’ve done it for 11 years so I may as well do something a little different.”
Which has caused consternation abroad. A luncheon with Keith Pelley, European Tour CEO, seemed to allay some worries that the tour’s top attraction would forfeit his membership—and with it, allegedly, a chance to some day captain the European Ryder Cup team, a ridiculous proposition. But McIlroy makes it obvious that he is prioritizing the PGA Tour, which with its revamped schedule makes it even harder to justify crisscrossing the Atlantic.
Of course, he is not alone in pledging fidelity to golf's fiduciary leader. The whole professional golf fraternity has its eventual sights set on the American tour. And for obvious reasons. More cash. Better climate. More World Ranking points. More is better. Better is better.
“It’s so one-sided,” McIlroy pointed out. “Look, you can talk all you want about these bigger events in Europe, but you can go to America and play for more money and more ranking points. I think as well with the world ranking points, everyone out here, all of their contracts with sponsors, it's all about world ranking points. If players are getting paid more and earning more world ranking points, why would you play over there?”
It sounded harsh, but he was only speaking the truth, and he continued.
“I want to play against the best players in the world. I get a buzz from that. I'd much rather go down the stretch against Justin Thomas or Dustin Johnson. I'm not putting anyone down in Europe, but the depths of fields and everything is just that bit better over here. It's what everyone is striving for. It's why [Italy's] Francesco Molinari is here this week. It's where it's heading.
“The ultimate goal is here,” McIlroy added. “The European Tour is a stepping stone. That's the truth. The European Tour is a stepping stone. That's the way it is. It's tough. I still want to support the European Tour, and I talk about this loyalty thing with Europe. … [But] it's not as though I'm just starting out and jumping ship. I've done my time. I've done everything I feel like I need to do to say OK, I’m going to make my own decisions and do what I want.”
This was no attempt at criticism, though some will infer it as such. This was just an honest assessment of the golf landscape. McIlroy isn’t changing it or tipping the scales appreciably further in favor of the American tour. Rather, he is adjusting to it in a way that some other international stars – Ernie Els comes first to mind – embraced far too late in their careers.
His words, delivered with raw honesty, will come off cold on the page, but you look at his eyes and see the tension in his face when he talks and you sense how conflicted he remains. Sure, it’s an easy decision this new direction of his in the new year. But it’s not at all simple.