A few years back, perhaps two or three or ten, Rory McIlroy held off Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler to win his second PGA Championship in one of those muddled areas in the middle of the country. Research suggests it occurred in the center—although one cannot rule out the eastern or western half—of Kentucky.
The tournament, consistent with everything else this century, was immediately forgotten, but unlike most lost to time and space was resurrected recently on account of comments from both the winner and the primary loser.
Rory kicked things off, almost certainly with the knowledge that his words, mild for the playground, would be interpreted by the hypersensitive golf community as a direct shot at his competitors. Rory had the gall to claim that Phil’s joviality, and the bonhomie the Americans exhibited throughout the day, sparked in him a desperate urge to win, which of course he went on to do.
As for Phil, he took the familiar high road—during a recent podcast which, despite the hype, was memorable only for the new age nonsense he spewed about coffee—and said good for Rory, there’s nothing wrong with him, like all of us, deriving inspiration from whatever source necessary in order to play his best.
Those invested in the sport, as self-conscious as ever about its staying power, seized on the incident. While providing the requisite clicks and buzz, it also showed Rory, still heir to the throne, with an edge that even Tiger could admire. And the ever popular Phil again got to play the gracious loser, this time for the benefit of the next generation.
In retrospect, that particular PGA was striking for an altogether different reason, one almost entirely at odds from the conclusions being drawn from this recent dustup. In fact, the events that day directly contradict the image of a Tiger-esque Rory, hellbent on winning…
To refresh one’s memory, it got late early out there that Sunday at Valhalla. A Monday finish looked inevitable and the pooh-bahs of the PGA, having foolishly acquiesced to television’s request for a late afternoon start, were about to take it on the chin.
However, as golfers are wont to do when darkness descends, Rory, playing in the final group, picked it up a notch or three. As he arrived on the 18th tee Rory took no time hitting into the twosome ahead of him (Phil and Fowler) to save precious seconds. He then sprinted up to the ball and bunted a shot up the fairway, before eventually lagging a longish putt, in the dark, to the edge of the hole for a par and the win.
Let’s pause for a second here to consider the circumstances. On the 72nd hole of a major championship, nursing a one stroke lead, Rory rushed a drive, rushed the approach, and putted in the dark. That is, he flailed away like every other 14 handicapper “waved up” on an overcrowded public course in Kentucky that afternoon.
Except, Rory wasn’t even waved up. He barely asked for permission and hit while a visibly annoyed Mickelson was still barking at a rules official regarding the suitability of what was about to take place.
And most importantly for our purposes, Rory, without being able to see more than 3 feet in front of him on the green, elected to proceed with a 25 or so foot putt, the muffing of which could have cost him a major championship.
Now let’s not be naive. Professional golfers are independent contractors, aren’t paid by the hour, and are certainly not getting comped for spending an extra night in eastern, central, or even western Kentucky. Corporate commitments, family members, and assorted hangers-on were surely awaiting wherever it was that Rory was scheduled to fly to later that evening.
But these are also guys that have no trouble backing off just about any two-footer if, say, a bird should chirp at the wrong time.
So what was going on in Rory’s head during that “championship” Sunday?
It’s true his behavior betrayed that of someone with a chip on the shoulder. It’s also true that Rory wouldn’t be the only professional Mickelson turned off with an over exuberant celebration after, say, a mediocre chip to 8 feet. The fact that Rory raised the Phil/Rickie thing years later suggests something that day struck a nerve.
But even if Rory was motivated by the sanctimony endemic to this side of the pond, he betrayed something darker than a desire to win early that evening. His act instead was reminiscent of a spoiled kid intent on taking his ball and going home.
But does the episode at Valhalla actually put Rory at odds with the true Tiger?
One might recall Tiger a decade earlier rushing off the premises after finishing late on Sunday at a PGA, despite the very real possibility that he’d wind up in a playoff on Monday. Phil, this time, did what was necessary to render extra holes moot, but the spectacle of Tiger potentially ceding a tournament to a rival by way of a premature departure was too good a story for even the obsequious pre-Thanksgiving 2009 golf media.
At his next appearance, the media indeed mustered the courage to challenge Tiger on his haste to flee the hinterlands of, in this case not Kentucky but metropolitan New York. Tiger mumbled something about the odds of Phil, Thomas Bjorn, Davis Love, and Steve Elkington—all closers extraordinaire, evidently—blowing it in tandem being infinitesimal. The media quickly grunted their consent and that was that.
Tiger’s actions at Baltusrol were less perplexing to me at the time than the Rory incident years later. Getting to 80 PGA Tour wins with Tiger’s disposition required becoming a self-centered sore loser, and there was no way his ego could stomach bearing witness to a Phil coronation. To the extent that he was actually willing to risk the public relations tsunami that would have descended had he been AWOL for a major championship playoff.
Too cynical? Was it instead a corporate commitment, his harem, or something more substantial beckoning him back to Florida?
Frankly, it’s irrelevant and the point remains: winning was secondary to Tiger that day, as it was to Rory just a few turns around the sun later. There is no escaping that you, the loyal fan, more often than not want it more than even the most determined in the professional ranks.
Keep that in mind that next time you’re flooded with disappointment after your favorite player three putts from 20 feet to lose a major championship. Or chooses a 15 hour flight to Dubai and a guaranteed payday—mind you with 9 figures already in the bank—while nursing a career on the precipice after multiple back surgeries…