It was only fitting that on the morning after LIV Golf announced its first course, de facto PGA Tour spokesman Rory McIlroy sat for a press conference at one of his circuit’s top events.
LIV’s release came Tuesday evening, when the Saudi-backed breakaway circuit sent out the names of 42 pros who will be competing in its inaugural event outside of London June 9-11. Dustin Johnson headlined the field, which also included many of McIlroy’s longtime Ryder Cup teammates including Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood.
McIlroy’s response came Wednesday morning at the Memorial Tournament, where he addressed the media after a morning nine-hole pro-am round. He spoke with characteristic candor, outlining the reasons some players had left and reflecting on his own financial transformation even as he reaffirmed his own commitment to golf’s top circuit.
On the one hand, McIlroy said he wasn’t particularly impressed by the list of names that dropped on Tuesday.
“I’d say indifferent is probably the way I’d describe it,” he said. “A couple of surprises in there, I think. … But I certainly don’t think the field is anything to jump up and down about. Look at the field this week. Look at the field next week in Canada. They are proper golf tournaments. ”
Those remarks were a reminder that although LIV has scored several golfers with significant careers – including Masters champs like Johnson and Garcia, former world No. 1s Westwood and Martin Kaymer and current World No. 20 Louis Oosthuizen – the bulk of the game’s talent still resides on the PGA Tour, with LIV stretching into obscurity to fill out its initial field.
But McIlroy added that he also has “very close friends” playing the London event, and he has no interest in standing in their way.
“It’s not something that I would do personally. But I certainly understand why some of the guys have gone, and it’s something that we’re all going to keep an eye on and see what happens over these next few weeks, ”he added.
Why would guys go? Two reasons in particular: Guaranteed money and a lot of it. While the PGA Tour offers lucrative weekly opportunities, the money isn’t guaranteed – and the competition is stiff. McIlroy outlined a compelling case for why aging pros or those with limited status would drop from the PGA Tour’s ranks.
“You know, you have some guys in a position where they are literally not guaranteed a job next year. It’s hard to stay in the top 125 [on the PGA Tour]especially when you’re a guy in your 40s and maybe you don’t hit the ball as far as you’ve used to.
“As we’ve seen, it’s a young man’s game nowadays. So someone that isn’t guaranteed their Tour card next year, another entity comes along and says, we’ll guarantee you this amount for three years, plus you’re playing for a ton more prize money, and you’re playing less events , you can spend more time with your family. I mean, whenever you sit down and look at some of those things, you know, it’s very appealing to some of those guys that are in that position.
“Again, I’m not in that position, and it’s not something that I would do. But you know, at least you have to try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and see where they are coming from. ”
What comes next is the PGA Tour’s response to players openly ignoring its insistence that they not play the event. It remains to be seen how harsh its sanctions will be for pros that do play LIV events. What muddies those waters is the Tour’s strategic alliance with the DP World Tour, which has less money and less star power and is therefore operating with less leverage. McIlroy hinted towards a seemingly inevitable legal battle which will determine how and when the Tour can respond.
“I certainly don’t think so [the PGA Tour] should drop the hammer, ”McIlroy said. “Look, they are well within their rights to enforce the rules and regulations that have been set. But there’s going to be – you know, it’s going to end up being an argument about what those rules and regulations are. ”
In explaining his own rejection of LIV’s offerings, McIlroy has in recent months explained that he isn’t playing for money at this point in his career. He’s chasing trophies and legacy and, despite his accumulated wealth, “I still use the same three, four rooms in my house.” But he acknowledged that his own motivations for playing have changed over the 15 years he has spent as a professional.
“When I turned pro, I was playing for money,” he said. “I wanted to keep my card. I remember I played the Spanish Open in 2007 as an amateur, and the year before, one of my really good friends in amateur golf, Oliver Fisher, had turned pro and got his European Tour card. And we went out for dinner one night in Madrid and before going out for dinner, I looked at The European Tour Order of Merit it and saw he made 200 grand that year. And I was like, “Oh, my God, 200 grand, that’s unbelievable. The guy is loaded. ”
When McIlroy turned pro, he didn’t go straight to the top tier; he didn’t play PGA Tour events nor was he in most majors. His goal was simple: He wanted to make a living playing professional golf.
“Like, the first thing I did when I got my Tour card was buy myself a house,” he said. “You need a job and you need to make money to buy yourself a house.
“There’s a lot of different parts to this. Do I play golf for money now? No. My situation has changed over the years. But when I started playing the game professionally, yeah, money was at the top of the list. ”
There are telling nuggets buried in those stories. For one thing, McIlroy said the house cost about “about 600,000 pounds,” and that he got a great deal on the mortgage. “This is right before the crash. So like, I put five percent down and interest-only repayment. I got it for free, basically. Like everyone else back in that time, ”he said.
That’s a reminder of how long the 33-year-old McIlroy has been playing professional golf; he turned pro nearly half his life ago in 2007 at age 18. As for the house? His parents still own it and stay there when they return home to Northern Ireland.
As for that buddy, Oliver Fisher, with whom McIlroy had dinner? He was a heralded young talent from London who turned pro in 2006. He has been playing the DP World Tour ever since, notching a win at the 2011 Czech Open, contending a handful of other times and making the cut at one major, the 2013 Open Championship. He peaked at World No. 161 but currently sits at No. 979 and has missed 38 of his last 47 cuts worldwide.
He’s set to play the first LIV event next week.