ATLANTA — This time last year, Rory McIlroy rode into the Tour Championship as the PGA Tour’s white knight, fending off the evil hordes of LIV Golf and Saudi Arabian wealth with a driver and a pure heart.
What a difference a year makes.
In July, the PGA Tour and LIV’s Saudi backers leaped into a shotgun engagement — final resolution TBD — leaving Rory alone on an island holding his driver.
“Last year, I was probably energized by everything that was going on in the world of golf. I felt like we were maybe in a bit more of a state of flux,” McIlroy said Wednesday morning. “I would say everything's just a little more balanced and a little more calm this year."
Today, the Tour is trying to repair the public relations damage wrought by its surprise announcement of a partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. McIlroy, meanwhile, perhaps freed of the responsibility of carrying an entire sport on his shoulders, has reeled off some of the best sustained golf of his career.
Since finishing T47 at the Wells Fargo in early May — more than three months ago — McIlroy has posted a top-10 finish in every single one of the nine tournaments he’s played. Now, that streak includes three majors, including one — the U.S. Open — where McIlroy was right on the eventual winner’s bumper but couldn’t quite make the pass.
It’s a matter of 19th-hole, grill-room debate what’s more impressive: a major win or a sustained run of greatness. Wyndham Clark — who happened to win that Wells Fargo back in May — has exactly one top-10 finish since then. However, that top-10 finish was also a victory at the U.S. Open … the same one where McIlroy couldn’t quite pull ahead.
Majors notwithstanding, McIlroy is on yet another one of his career heaters. He comes into the Tour Championship in third place, starting three strokes behind leader Scottie Scheffler and very much a threat to capture his fourth FedEx Cup. (Another debate: whether it’s tougher to win a one-week major or a three- to four-tournament playoff.)
Maybe McIlroy would be thriving no matter what the external circumstances, or maybe he’s swinging a little bit easier now that he’s no longer in the midst of the PGA Tour-LIV Golf battle. He brushed off a question about the United States Ryder Cup team possibly adding LIV players to its roster with a curt “I don't think it would make a difference for us.”
But McIlroy is also, in his words, “less emotionally involved” in the business of pushing the PGA Tour forward, largely because what’s needed now is not what interests him.
“Last year it was to do with, ‘How can we make the product of the PGA Tour better?’ and I think I was really invested in that,” he said. “So when it comes to, like, governance and investment and all that, like, that doesn't really ...” he paused, grimaced, remembered he’s on the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council and regained his composure ... “not that I don't care about it, but it doesn't excite me as much as making the product better.”
McIlroy tees off in the penultimate group Thursday alongside Jon Rahm. He’ll be formidable, particularly given the way he thundered to victory last year.
“I fell 11 shots behind Scottie after two holes of the tournament,” he said. “So if I can come back from 11 shots, I feel like everyone in this field should feel like they have a chance to win.”