There’s a new guessing game in golf - what’s Rory McIlroy going to do next. In June he surprised nearly everyone when he followed his implosion at the Masters with an eight-shot US Open win. Fast forward six weeks and he’s overshadowed the return to Tiger Woods to PGA Tour action this week by announcing that he’s seriously considering rejoining the PGA Tour next season.
Nearly nine months ago, McIlroy gave up his card and said: “I found myself in America last year, especially in the FedEx Cup play-off series, just not wanting to be there…. If you’re not playing well in the States it can be a lonely place. But if you’re not playing well on the European Tour you still have plenty of mates to hang out with. Holly also has another two years at university and we have two dogs, a nice house and I love my life back in Ireland. I don’t ever want to give that up.”
Fast forward to the eve of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron and the story is very different. Holly is history, he’s playing well and life in Ireland has become more of grind since his went from golf star to public megastar in the space of a few weeks.
“I spoke to a couple of the guys from the PGA Tour today about it, and I’m leaning towards taking my card up again definitely,” said McIlroy, who is involved a burgeoning romance with the Danish world tennis number one Caroline Wozniacki.
“I feel as if I play my best golf over here. I’m very comfortable in this country. I’m going to look at a few houses down in Florida after the (US) PGA.
“I might go and stay with G-Mac (Graeme McDowell) for a night at Lake Nona and see what that’s like and then down in West Palm Beach and Jupiter, around there.
“I’m definitely looking towards coming back and playing a full schedule over here.”
So why the sea change? What prompted McIlroy to change his mind and contemplate returning to the PGA Tour fold so soon? His return was inevitable but the timing is significant.
- Private life: McIlroy recent break up with his childhood sweetheart Holly Sweeney has made life complicated in Northern Ireland, where they shared a home until recently. Add to that the increased media interest in his private life since he started seeing Danish tennis beauty Caroline Wozniacki and getting away from it all was an easy option. Sources at McIlroy’s management company, ISM, said: “It had a little bit to do with Holly and getting away the pressure of being a superstar in Northern Ireland. His game is more suited to the States as well.” Asked if the changes in his personal life at home in Belfast had been a factor, McIlroy said: “Maybe a little bit. Definitely.”
He didn’t mention Wozniacki by name but didn’t have to with these comments: “I think the person that I’m holding hands with, we’re both in a position where there’s a high level of scrutiny and it’s just something that you have to deal with. It’s not something that’s ever going to go away, or I hope it doesn’t go away because it means that I won’t be playing good golf. It’s going to be part of my career now.”
- Weather and game suitability: McIlroy said in Akron that his decision was prompted by his experience at the Open when he said his game as more suited to the fine weather to be found on the PGA Tour than the rough and tumble associated with the game’s oldest major. “I feel as if my game really suits playing courses over here. I love Quail Hollow, Memorial, Akron. You play Match Play, Honda, Doral, Masters. You have your favourite events, and most of my favourite events seem to be on this side of the pond and my game suits it over here. I’m very comfortable over here. I’d like to give it a go again and obviously last more than one year and really see how it goes.”
He added: “Things have changed a bit over the past month or two and I just want to try and play a bit more over here and not be tied to one place. Belfast is always going to be my home but at least when I play in the Middle East at the start of the year I can come over to the States and stay for two or three months until after the Players. There is a bit of attention on me now after winning the US Open and everything but it’s a great position to be in and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
- Marketing and image: McIlroy’s return to the US would be a huge boost to the PGA Tour as its TV contract with the networks comes up for renewal at the end of next season. But it’s also huge for McIlroy’s earning potential. Mobbed by autograph hunters wherever he goes - he was stopped constantly for autographs and pictures at TGI Friday’s near Firestone on Tuesday - he’s the perfect foil for Woods and the new generation of young guns such as Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson.
- Schedule: If he goes ahead and rejoins, McIlroy will play a remarkably similar schedule to those followed by Graeme McDowell and Padraig Harrington. Playing 15 PGA Tour events would force him to drop an event such as the Omega European Masters in September but he would still have time late in the season to make those big, money-spinning appearances in Asia.
McIlroy’s decision, if it finally comes to pass, is yet another example of him taking advice on board, sifting through it and making up his own mind.
When he won the US Open, his agent Chubby Chandler was asked if his No 1 client would rejoin the PGA Tour.
“No, did I say that quick enough?”
The ISM boss plans to talk to McIlroy at Atlanta Athletic Club on Monday. Oh to be a fly on the wall at that meeting.