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Rory McIlroy once carried the burden of being the next Tiger Woods. He never quite hit those heights — who could? — but he’s becoming something equally notable: guardian of golf’s vast history.
At 33, McIlroy is old enough to have played in more than 50 majors, yet young enough to still compete in them regularly. (Well, three days of every four, but still.) That, combined with a clear love of the game’s history, gives him a perspective that encompasses both “things were better in the good ol’ days” and “where’s my next check coming from?”
With the benefit of that perspective — along with four majors, plus many millions in career earnings — McIlroy has planted his flag firmly in the camp of the PGA Tour in its battle with the upstart LIV Golf endeavor.
Speaking on Tuesday prior to the U.S. Open, and looking a whole lot more comfortable than Phil Mickelson had at the same podium a day earlier, McIlroy framed the fight between the two tours as one of money versus legacy, of short-term riches versus a century-long history.
“The PGA Tour was created by people and tour players that came before us, the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer,” McIlroy said. “They created something and worked hard for something, and I hate to see all the players that came before us and all the hard work that they've put in just come out to be nothing.”
McIlroy also highlighted the Tour’s efforts as a charitable endeavor, with billions given to charities in the United States and around the world. “When you are talking about the Tour and everything that's happening right now, you have to see the bigger picture than just the golf,” McIlroy said. “I think I've tried to take a wider view of everything, and I just think it's the right thing to do.”
It’s a stirring argument, particularly for people who haven’t been offered eight- and nine-figure checks to play golf. But it also runs up hard against cold reality: legacy doesn’t equal money. All the high-minded talk about Nicklaus and Palmer, all the gentle piano music and dewy images of sunrises over dew-dappled fairways, can’t compare — for many players — to a fat check for easy work.
To his credit, McIlroy — unlike many of the fiercest critics, or ardent supporters, of LIV — gets that we live in a complex world with competing obligations and constant degrees of compromise.
“I've spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and the vast majority of people that I've met there are very, very nice people, but there's bad people everywhere. The bad people that came from that part of the world did some absolutely horrendous things,” he said. “In this day and age everything is just so intertwined, and it's hard to separate sport from politics from dirty money from clean money. It's a very convoluted world right now.”
Still, McIlroy has a luxury many players, particularly younger ones, don’t: the ability to play for legacy, not money. “It means a lot, going back to history and tradition and putting your name on trophies that have the legends of the game on them,” he said. “That's really cool, and that's something that money can't buy.”
He doesn’t much worry about the Sergio Garcias and Lee Westwoods of the LIV Golf tour, the players who had success in the 2000s and 2010s. Those players, in McIlroy’s words, “made their bed,” and the likelihood that they would contribute to golf’s future is relatively low.
“They would say to you themselves that their best days are behind them,” he said. “That's why I don't understand for the guys that are a similar age to me going, because I would like to believe that my best days are still ahead of me, and I think theirs are too. So that's where it feels like you're taking the easy way out.”
McIlroy infamously declared LIV “dead in the water” in February, after Mickelson’s callous comments about Saudi atrocities forced him into a three-month exile. On Tuesday, McIlroy conceded that he’d missed the mark, but pointed out what had changed between then and now.
“I took a lot of players' statements at face value. I guess that's what I got wrong,” he said, indirectly referencing players like Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau. “You had people committed to the PGA Tour … I took them at their word, and I was wrong.”
If LIV’s ascendance means that McIlroy, Justin Thomas and other PGA Tour stars won’t face the LIV notables as often, that will be a true loss for golf. McIlroy had a memorable battle with LIV’s Patrick Reed in the 2016 Ryder Cup, and has expressed admiration for the way that both Johnson and DeChambeau have lengthened and expanded the game. But here, clearly, he’s drawing a line in the sand.
“Legacy, reputation, at the end of the day that's all you have,” McIlroy said. “You strip everything away, and you're left with how you made people feel and what people thought of you. That is important to me.”
It’s a noble stand. But will it be enough to sway other players tempted by tens of millions of Saudi dollars? That’s the existential threat the PGA Tour faces, and that’s the fight McIlroy could now be fighting for the rest of his career.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.