Furor Over European Tour Declarations Dies Down
Sneak Peek: This story will appear in the Jan. 14 edition of Global Golf Post.
There is a saying in the UK that “yesterday’s news is today’s fish-and-chip paper.” In other words, yesterday’s news is of little or no importance today. On the matter of Rory McIlroy and his recent statements about forsaking the European Tour for the PGA Tour, it seems to be particularly true.
The story so far: Barely had the bells rung out announcing the new year than McIlroy made some startling comments about his commitment to the European Tour, which is his home tour, and the PGA Tour. By virtue of his standing in the game as the man who had won four major championships before his 26th birthday, as a past world No 1, and three times winner of the Race to Dubai title in Europe, McIlroy makes news when he speaks. But even by his standards what the Northern Irishman said this time was particularly newsworthy. Or at least it seemed so at the time.
Laying out his plans for the 2019 season at the PGA Tour’s Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, McIlroy appeared, metaphorically at least, to wave goodbye to the European Tour, and, seemingly without much remorse or a backward glance, swore allegiance to the PGA Tour in the future. He hit his words with the accuracy and force of one of his own 330-yard drives. “My life’s here. I have an American wife. I live in America,” McIlroy said. You could almost hear European Tour officials and supporters wincing and saying “ouch” as they heard those words.
He did not stop there. “Honestly I enjoy it more here,” McIlroy continued. “The way of life is easier. The weather.” He described the European Tour as “a stepping stone,” saying that his ultimate goal “… is here (in the US). That’s the way it is. It’s tough. I still want to support the European Tour and I talk about this loyalty thing with Europe (but) it’s not as though I’m just starting out and jumping ship.”
It is true that last November McIlroy had said he would play only two tournaments on the European Tour in 2019, and might not maintain his tour membership, which, under the current rules, would prevent him from becoming captain of a Europe Ryder Cup team in future. It is also true that several senior players were shocked at McIlroy’s November statement. Paul McGinley, McIlroy’s countryman and captain at the 2014 Ryder Cup, said he didn’t understand it. But after Keith Pelley, chief executive of the European Tour, had flown to Northern Ireland to have lunch with McIlroy, the impression was that Pelley had doused that particular fire.
Which is why McIlroy’s statements in Hawaii came as a considerable surprise to those of European persuasion. Despite protestations of loyalty, he seemed to be deserting Europe, his home tour. It was unexpected, a bit like the film scene when the hero, having closed his eyes, leans in for a kiss from the heroine only to get his face slapped, suddenly and violently.
Predictably, McIlroy’s statements caused a stir in the UK. “McIlroy must show some loyalty to Europe – or face the Ryder Cup axe” was one headline in a national newspaper. Social media ramped it up. “McIlroy is a bottler” went one tweet. Others called for him to be left out of future Ryder Cup teams for showing disloyalty, and the discomfort of the organisers of the Irish Open when they learned that McIlroy almost certainly won’t play in their event two weeks before the Open was obvious.
“He gets the glory, the opportunity to be loved on the golf course. He gets the exuberance, the crowd.” – Pádraig Harrington, on McIlroy at the Ryder Cup.
But then a week passed and if a week is a long time in politics, it is seven days in matters to do with golf, too. McIlroy slipped in to the margins. Despite not wanting to, most people in the UK had at least one eye and one ear on the Brexit negotiations. Furthermore, there was the forthcoming announcement of Europe’s captain at the 2020 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits to be made. It was widely and rightly predicted that Ireland’s Pádraig Harrington would be named as the man to try and captain a winning Europe side in the US for only the third time this century.
Almost exactly seven days after McIlroy had caused such a stir from Hawaii, Harrington addressed the McIlroy issue at the European Tour’s headquarters at Wentworth outside London. Just as McIlroy had not minced his words, so Harrington didn’t mince his and suddenly a lot of air seemed to have been taken out of the balloon.
Harrington said there was “no doubt” that McIlroy would be included in the team to play in the US in 2020. “I can only look at his actions,” Harrington said. “The man loves the Ryder Cup. He has become a leader in the team room. He gives so much to the Ryder Cup. The Ryder Cup gives so much back to Rory that he can’t get elsewhere.
“He gets the glory, the opportunity to be loved on the golf course. He gets the exuberance, the crowd. You don’t get that day in and day out. You don’t get that regularly. His actions are all about the Ryder Cup. He will be 100 percent behind and in that Ryder Cup team. There’s no doubt about it. You just have to know the man behind the scenes.”
It is worth pointing out what McIlroy has to do to remain a member of the European Tour for this year. He needs to play in four European Tour events, excluding the major championships and the World Golf Championships. At present he has two on his schedule, the Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open the week before the Open and the Omega European Masters in Switzerland, at the end of August. Omega is one of McIlroy’s sponsors.
So what if he doesn’t fulfil the required number of events to retain his membership for 2019? His membership will lapse. Whether that will stop him becoming a Ryder Cup captain in a few years is debatable. As he has pointed out, any potential captaincy role is years away and in that time the rules can, and probably will, change. That is hardly a stick with which to beat McIlroy into rejoining the tour.
Playing in the 2020 Ryder Cup on the other hand is. Though the player once described it as little more than an exhibition, he is now fully invested in it. You can see that from his behaviour, first when he played Patrick Reed in that thrilling singles at Hazeltine National in 2016 and then again and again in Paris last September. His actions then were not those of a man who was anything less than completely committed to his side’s cause.
So what will happen?
Most likely is that McIlroy will get this year’s major championships out of the way, which will be by the end of July, finish competing in the FedEx Cup by late August and then turn his attention to playing in some of the lucrative end-of-season events which would enable him to maintain his European Tour membership.
One of those would likely be the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in November, and another the BMW PGA Championship, which used to be in May but has now been moved to mid-September. The European Tour used to like to describe the latter as “its flagship event” until Pelley came along and said that it wasn’t anything of the sort. How could it be, Pelley asked, when the purse was smaller than the event going on in the US at the same time.
If McIlroy chose to put his membership to one side for the 2019 season then he could rejoin the European Tour at the end of the year in time to start accumulating points for the 2020 match.
Either option, whilst perhaps not ideal for golf fans and sponsors in Europe, would satisfy McIlroy’s avowed intent to concentrate on the major championships and enjoy his life in the US. Nor would he be the first to do this. Justin Rose, recently repositioned as the world No 1, will play in Europe only twice before the Open. The difference is that he has firmly committed to remaining a European Tour member.
Top-line players from Europe competing on the more lucrative PGA Tour is a hardy perennial for European Tour officials. Nick Faldo did it more than 30 years ago. Bernhard Langer, too. Tyrrell Hatton is said to be considering playing more in the US and so is Francesco Molinari. What the European Tour officials have to do is work out ways of keeping tour sponsors happy while raising the prize money in Europe as much as possible to lure the best players back from the US. This is no easy task. It is like squaring a circle. But it is an obvious one. And it has to be done while recognising that unlike many other sports, golfers are free agents. No one employs them. They can do more or less what they like.
How will all this end? I suspect with more of a whimper than a bang. Harrington is confident that one of his star players will be available for Whistling Straits. Paul McGinley said on Irish radio this week that he thinks the same. “You don’t want to leave a player of the quality of Rory out of the Ryder Cup team, that’s for sure,” McGinley said. For what it is worth, I think it is highly unlikely if not inconceivable that McIlroy will not make the next Ryder Cup.
What is more important than McIlroy’s slightly intemperate words in Hawaii is that he does what he believes he will do if he plays in the US: namely, start to play better and nowhere more so than in the last round of big events.
It has been observed that on the last day of seven tournaments in the past year McIlroy has played in the final group, which means he was leading or very near the lead, yet he didn’t win any of those events. The Sentry Tournament of Champions, which ended in Hawaii last Sunday, was a perfect case in point. After 54 holes McIlroy was three strokes off the lead in second place. His final round of 72 was one of the highest of the tournament leaders and he slipped to fourth. For such a talented golfer to fail repeatedly to grab victory, this is simply nothing like good enough, though McGinley thought he saw encouraging signs in McIlroy’s play in Hawaii.
“I was hugely impressed the way he played,” McGinley said. “I thought his balance, his swing, his power, his control of the ball and his wedge play looked really on. His putting looked decent. I know he got overrun on the last day. It turned into a putting contest and low scoring and that is not where he excels. He looked to be in really good shape to me, like a guy who has been working and training and practising over the wintertime.”
So when we look back at an episode played out in the first full week of a new year, one that was so startling at the start, what do we conclude? At the risk of being naïve, we conclude that it arose with a roar and died with a whimper. A storm in a teacup, no less.
Rory McIlroy tees off on the first hole during the final round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions. Photo: Brian Spurlock, USA Today Sports
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