News & Opinion

Don’t fault McIlroy for U.S. focus in ’19

Amid fires raging in California, CNN’s Jim Acosta’s effort to reclaim White House media access and the Florida election recount looking like Groundhog Day, a little sparkle of news floated out of the Middle East last week.

Rory McIlroy, a four-time major champion, was letting the assembled media at the DP World Tour Championship know that he was scheduled to play only two pure European Tour events in 2019.

“I want to play against the strongest fields week in and week out,” he said, “and for the most part of the season, that is in America.”

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Rory McIlroy deserves the chance to plot his own path in golf, whether it be on the European Tour or in America.

Critics across Europe struggled to understand how the Northern Irishman could shun his home tour, despite the 2017 introduction of the Rolex Series. The eight-tournament series, with its minimum $7 million purses, was conceived by tour chief Keith Pelley to prevent such defections. Even Paul McGinley, the 2014 Ryder Cup captain, questioned McIlroy’s decision.

Not that McIlroy needs a defense, given the overall greater prize money and world-ranking points on the PGA Tour, but I’ve decided to appoint myself with the task.

Dating to 2011, McIlroy has won four major championships. No one during that time has won as many. Americans Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka won three apiece during the same period.

But since 2014, when McIlroy won the season’s last two majors, the British Open and the PGA, he has drilled a dry hole in golf’s biggest events. In 2018, McIlroy made 18 starts on the PGA Tour and only five exclusively on the European Tour (excluding the WGCs and major championships, which count on both tours), with his lone victory coming at the Arnold Palmer Invitational – his first title in nearly two years. During that nearly two-year winless streak, McIlroy faced persistent questions about what he was doing and why his game seemingly was not ready for prime time.

He offered many reasons – to some, excuses – without answering the question, Why?

McIlroy seemed to silence many of the questioners with his victory at Bay Hill in March, but he is struggling again. His inconsistent driver was a concern a week earlier at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa, where he tied for 21st.

Now, with McIlroy apparently willing to sacrifice his European Tour membership by not playing in the minimum number of events – four, exclusive of the four WGCs and four majors – the attention and questions have intensified.

Only Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods have been under a similar microscope at the game’s highest level recently. But McIlroy, as one of the most recognizable faces of European golf, must endure scrutiny about his commitment to both tours, unlike the American stars.

Many critics seem to forget that McIlroy saved the Irish Open. He lent his name as host, and then, in 2016, donated his entire winner’s check of 666,000 euros (about $750,000) to the tournament’s charity, his eponymous Rory Foundation, which is dedicated to helping children and families.

McIlroy has compiled a stellar record at the Ryder Cup: 11-9-4 in five editions, as Europe has gone 4-1 against the Americans. In addition to questions about his status as a European Tour member for 2019, McIlroy also faces uncertainty regarding his eligibility to captain Europe in a future Ryder Cup. European Tour regulations introduced in 2017 state, in part, that “players cannot be a European Ryder Cup captain or a vice-captain if they decline membership of the European Tour or fail to fulfil their minimum event obligation in any season, from 2018 onwards.”

For McIlroy, 29, any administrative post likely would be 15-20 years out, but what if he were to win a few more major championships and help lead Europe to a few more Ryder Cup victories in the next decade or so? Would the decision to give up tour membership for a year be held against him?

A professional golfer can become too popular, trying to fulfill the needs and wants of various tours. But those same tours would be nowhere to be found should his game deteriorate and his professional status become jeopardized.

McIlroy’s career has been under the spotlight since before he turned pro, and clearly that will never change. As a man who still is in his 20s, he should be given a chance to figure out the best way forward. He deserves that consideration.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli