McIlroy Never Fails To Deliver

McIlroy Never Fails To Deliver

Contributor: Doug Ferguson

As much as Mickelson was at the centre of the LIV Golf discussion, so was McIlroy. One of the most popular players in the game today, he used his platform not only to declare his allegiance to the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, but to speak out against the rival league. His opinion was sought more than any other, and McIlroy never failed to deliver. Behind the scenes, he was working with Woods and other top players to devise a new schedule for the PGA Tour that would make prize money at least competitive with LIV Golf and its $25 million purses and to bring the top players together more often. And when he put his hands on a golf club, he still performed at a remarkably high level. McIlroy won three times in 2022, and while none was the major he so dearly covets, all were significant because of the timing.

The first was the RBC Canadian Open a week before the US Open. McIlroy was the defending champion from 2019 — golf ’s fourth-oldest national championship had been cancelled the previous two years because of the pandemic — and the title sponsor was reeling from having lost three corporate ambassadors to LIV Golf, including Dustin Johnson. The Canadian gallery was out in full force and McIlroy delivered a brilliant show, holding off Justin Thomas and Tony Finau down the stretch, while Justin Rose narrowly missed out on a 59. During the telecast, Monahan gave his first interview since LIV Golf began and defended his right to suspend players who joined the rival league. He also subtly challenged the source of funding when he said, “I would ask any player that has left, or any player that would ever consider leaving, ‘Have you ever had to apologise for being a member of the PGA Tour?’” McIlroy took a dig at Norman after winning, saying it was a day he would remember for a long time because it was his 21st title on the PGA Tour and that was “one more than someone else. That gave me a little bit of extra incentive today.” It didn’t take long to check the PGA Tour records and see Norman was on 20 career wins.

The standard for McIlroy is such that he is measured by the majors, and his last Grand Slam title was in 2014. He holed a bunker shot for birdie on the 18th at Augusta National for a 64 to tie the Masters record for lowest closing round. He was runner-up, though he was never in the mix to win. He opened with a 65 to lead the PGA Championship only to stall out and tie for eighth. He was one shot out of the lead at the US Open and tied for fifth. Nothing haunted him more than The 150th Open at St Andrews, where he was tied for the 54-hole lead with Viktor Hovland. McIlroy managed only two birdies on Sunday and finished third, later weeping in the arms of his wife, Erica. That didn’t make the year a failure.

A tumultuous season on the PGA Tour ended at the Tour Championship. This came one week after McIlroy and Woods led a private, players-only meeting during the BMW Championship to outline changes for the PGA Tour going forward. Monahan announced those changes on the eve of the Tour Championship, with McIlroy listening from the back of the room. The biggest change was creating “elevated events” that would offer $20 million in prize money and require the top players to compete in them. On the course at East Lake, McIlroy started the tournament six shots behind based on his FedEx Cup standing. McIlroy birdied the final two holes of the third round for a 63 that put him in the final group with Scheffler, still six shots back. And then he delivered to win the $18 million bonus by one shot over Scheffler and Sungjae Im. “This is the best place in the world to play golf. It’s the most competitive. It’s got the best players. It’s got the deepest fields. I don’t know why you’d want to play anywhere else,” McIlroy said, getting in the final word with his clubs.

His year wasn’t over. McIlroy won the CJ Cup in South Carolina — the tournament moved from South Korea for the third straight year because of travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic — and returned to number one in the world for the first time since 2020. It was the ninth time McIlroy had ascended to the top of the world ranking, the first occasion coming 10 years earlier. The record belongs to Woods and Norman, who each went to number one in the world 11 times.

McIlroy stayed there for the rest of the year, though competition was tight with Scheffler right behind. Since the dominance of Woods — number one for a record 683 weeks — McIlroy joined Dustin Johnson as the only two players to be at number one for 100 weeks or more. Not since Woods in 2009 has anyone stayed at number one the entire calendar year, and it doesn’t figure to be easy for McIlroy going forward. Competition is getting younger and deeper and tougher with each passing year.

Between wins at the Tour Championship and the CJ Cup, McIlroy returned to Europe for three DP World Tour events. He was runner-up at the BMW PGA Championship to good friend Shane Lowry, finished fourth in the Italian Open and tied for fourth in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. He returned after the CJ Cup for the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, and capturing the DP World Tour points list was not a foregone conclusion. McIlroy tied for fourth, that was enough when Ryan Fox faltered. It was the fourth time McIlroy had finished as Europe’s number one player, this one with an exception: it was his first such title without winning on the DP World Tour. His points came from the majors, and for finishing in the top 10 at five of the six regular DP World Tour events he played. His worst result was a tie for 12th in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship to start his remarkable year.

McIlroy played the Italian Open for the first time with a purpose — Marco Simone is hosting the Ryder Cup in 2023. For an off year in the Ryder Cup, there was plenty of activity. Zach Johnson, who captured his two majors at Augusta National (2007) and St Andrews (2015), was selected in late February to be the US captain for the 2023 match. Europe typically announces its captain at the start of the year during the Middle East swing. But with so much speculation caused by LIV Golf — who was going, who was staying — it delayed the decision until March. Henrik Stenson accepted the job and pledged his support of the DP World Tour and to win back that precious gold trophy.

By the middle of July, however, Stenson had decided to join LIV Golf and Europe removed him as captain, handing the reins to Luke Donald. Still to be determined is who would be playing for Donald. Tensions were running so high among players who joined LIV Golf and those who stayed that McIlroy had a falling out with Sergio Garcia, once among his closest friends in golf. Jon Rahm, a strong supporter of the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, felt the Ryder Cup should not consider on which tour someone belonged, only that Team Europe had its best 12 players to face the Americans. US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick felt the same way. The DP World Tour also faced a legal challenge from players it punished for joining LIV, and a decision was not expected until 2023. In the meantime, there was the reality of an ageing European team. Stalwarts such as Garcia and Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey, were all in their 40s and on the downside of their best golf.

LIV Golf took its toll on another cup. The Presidents Cup is run by the PGA Tour and dates to 1994 as an opportunity for non-Europeans to compete in team matches. Trevor Immelman of South Africa was captain of the International team, which had been getting closer to changing a competition so one-sided that the Americans had lost only one time, all the way back in 1998. The Internationals lost its best Presidents Cup player in Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, who along with Branden Grace were among the first to play LIV Golf events and thus be suspended. A month before the match at Quail Hollow Club in North Carolina, Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman of Australia, and Joaquin Niemann of Chile had defected. That meant Immelman had to face the daunting US team with eight players who had never played in the Presidents Cup. Only three of his 12 players had won tournaments in 2022 and only two — Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama — had won majors. The plucky team did its best to keep it close, particularly the dazzling play of Tom Kim, only to fall well short again. Next up is to see who Europe brings to Italy, although the core of Europe was still intact with US Open champions Rahm and Fitzpatrick, four-time major winner McIlroy and Open champion Lowry, Tommy Fleetwood, Viktor Hovland and Tyrrell Hatton. Rahm appeared to be well-suited to be the emotional spark for Europe, just as fellow Spaniards like Garcia, Jose Maria Olazabal and the great Seve Ballesteros were before him.

Rahm began the year at number one in the world and he started off by finishing at 33 under par at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, a PGA Tour record any other time except this one because Smith was one better. Rahm had a cold putter in the early months, and he lost the number one ranking when Scheffler won the Dell Match Play. Most disturbing to the Spaniard was his performance in the majors. A year after he captured the US Open and finished in the top 10 in the other three majors, he didn’t feature in any of them. That didn’t make it a lost a year, of course. Rahm won the Mexico Open and the Spanish Open, and he capped off his year with a victory in the DP World Tour Championship. He finished the year at number four on the world money list with $9,941,545.

The player one spot ahead of him on the world money list was Patrick Cantlay with $10,081,605. Cantlay isn’t always flashy, but he took another step toward being one of the top American players through sheer consistency. Cantlay won the Zurich Classic team event with Xander Schauffele, his best friend in golf. He won the BMW Championship for the second straight year with a brilliant eight-iron from a sidehill lie in the bunker on the final hole at Wilmington Country Club in Delaware. The majors remain a glaring hole in his otherwise solid game, with only one top 10 in 2022 (Open Championship) and no serious chance at winning. But he was never far away. Cantlay twice lost in a playoff, to Scheffler in the WM Phoenix Open and to Jordan Spieth in the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head when both found a bunker short of the green. Spieth had a clean lie, Cantlay’s shot was plugged. He also was runner-up in the Rocket Mortgage Classic and the Shriners Children’s Open in Las Vegas when he hooked a tee shot into a ravine on the final hole and lost to Tom Kim. He remained among the top 10 in the world ranking the entire year. The Official World Golf Ranking was in the news more than usual, and not just because three players occupied the number one position during the year. Officials from the six main tours had been working on trying to develop a system that would properly rank each field from top to bottom. Their solution was to get away from minimum points (24 points to the winner of a PGA Tour or DP World Tour tournament, less for some of the smaller tours). The strength of field calculation involved a statistical evaluation of every player in the field, not just players among the top 200. The change took place in August and led to some confusion during the transition from the old model to the new one. Smaller fields, no matter how strong at the top, received fewer points than they once did and some tournaments on the DP World Tour were particularly hurt without top players. Officials believe it will take until the middle of 2023 for the new system to be fully integrated.

The greater debate, of course, involved LIV Golf. The new league, which officially launched in early June, did not apply to be part of the OWGR system until July 6 after it had played two tournaments. Peter Dawson, the former R&A chief executive who now is chairman of the OWGR, responded with a statement that simply said, “Examination of the application will now commence”. LIV Golf faced a few hurdles with its format of 54 holes, no cut after 36 holes and no clear path of qualifying to join the 48-man league. Among the guidelines for OWGR inclusion is a 36-hole cut for tournaments with 54 holes, and an average of 75-player fields over the course of the season. New tours asking for OWGR inclusion also typically must comply with guidelines for at least one year. Norman, however, suggested the deck was stacked against him because the eight-member panel includes executives from the DP World Tour and the PGA Tour. He wanted Monahan and DP World Tour chief Keith Pelley to recuse themselves.
Norman also tried to get points through the MENA Tour (acronym for Middle East, North Africa). LIV Golf already had infused $300 million into the Asian Tour and had aligned itself with that circuit. The MENA Tour provides a pathway to the Asian Tour with 54-hole tournaments that have $75,000 prize funds. Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and the rest of LIV Golf players became part of the MENA Tour. The OWGR didn’t accept it and the year ended with no world ranking points for LIV Golf and no indication when — or if — the league would join the OWGR system. The effect was noticeable. Johnson was number 13 in the world when he signed with LIV Golf. He ended the year at number 41, and that included points he earned from his tie for 24th in the US Open and his tie for sixth in the Open Championship. Bryson DeChambeau went from number 24 when he joined to number 67. Brooks Koepka fell out of the top 50 for the first time since 2014. He finished the year at number 52, down from 19th when he joined.

Koepka and Johnson were among the winners in the seven individual tournaments that were part of the LIV Golf Invitational Series. The tournaments featured shotgun starts, but the big attraction was money. LIV Golf offered $4 million to the winner from the $20 million prize fund, with an additional $5 million for the team competition. Johnson led the way with $13,637,767 in seven tournaments — $10,575,267 of that from individual play — and with team results and bonuses, he topped $35 million. No one won more than one tournament.


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