When Rory McIlroy recently answered a routine question about his schedule for 2019, it was treated as golf’s equivalent of Brexit – a shocking and foolhardy distancing from Europe.
“I am starting my year off in the States and that will be the big focus of mine up until the end of August, and then we will assess from there,” he said. “I want to play against the strongest fields week-in and week-out, and for the most part of the season that is in America. If I want to continue to contend in the majors and to continue my journey back towards the top of the game, then that’s what I want to do.”
McIlroy was speaking at the European Tour’s season-ending event in Dubai and knew he would draw incoming fire for his candor.
“Everyone has to look out for themselves,” he said. “And next year, I’m looking out for me.”
Cue the commentariat fretting about McIlroy ceding his membership of the European Tour and with it his eligibility to captain the Ryder Cup squad 20 years hence. The Tour’s chief executive, Keith Pelley, even parachuted into Belfast for a face-to-face meeting about a schedule that McIlroy acknowledged had not yet been finalized.
Few golfers will enter 2019 feeling more impatient than McIlroy. He is almost five years removed from his last major championship victory, a drought exacerbated by the roster of rivals who have won majors during his fallow period. When McIlroy claimed the PGA Championship in 2014, Jordan Spieth owned zero major titles. Same for Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day and Patrick Reed.
That group now has a combined 10 victories in the events McIlroy prizes most. Small wonder he approaches 2019 with the aim of reasserting himself as the alpha dog in the pack. Success will depend in large part on the swing changes he has worked on for months with his coach, Michael Bannon. But schedule is also key, and McIlroy’s calendar kerfuffle illustrates how a sport that prides itself on being global remains at heart stubbornly parochial.
Loyalty to one’s “home” tour is unduly cherished in golf. Just ask Jason Day, who is routinely roasted at this time every year for his lack of starts in Australia. Perhaps Day could do more to support that struggling circuit, but no one can accuse McIlroy of not doing his bit for the cause in Europe.
In 2015 he took over as host of the Irish Open, an event burdened with a paltry purse and a rota of mostly mediocre venues. When he handed off that role in July, the prize fund had tripled and Ireland’s finest links courses were hosting. And while McIlroy benefited mightily from the support of Irish golfing bodies and the European Tour in his formative years, are we to seriously think this is a debt that can never be repaid? That the ledger can never be balanced?
Let’s be clear here. What is being demanded of McIlroy isn’t allegiance to a region or a team but loyalty to a business. The European Tour is protecting its commercial interests. That’s fair enough. McIlroy is entitled to do the same. But their interests are not aligned.
Top players face competing claims weekly from tours far beyond the main stages in the United States and Europe – the Japan Tour, the Australasian Tour, the Sunshine Tour. And pressure to show loyalty to European Tour events isn’t just a matter for Europeans: The circuit will have held or co-sanctioned 20 tournaments in 15 counties before it first touches down on its home continent in May.
Golf is a global game rife with provincial concerns.
There’s a valid argument that golf would be better served if organized beneath a single banner, like the ATP Tour in tennis, which staged 66 tournaments worldwide in 2018, often as many as three per week. One umbrella tour setting the schedule could help restore luster to neglected events – notably the Australian Open – and bring some sense to the byzantine method of assigning world ranking points to “hit and giggle” events (looking at you, Hero World Challenge).
That won’t happen in 2019, of course, so the world’s top golfers will remain hostage to insular business interests masquerading as national or regional loyalty. McIlroy’s focus is exactly where it ought to be: on winning major championships. He owes it to himself to prepare as best he can for the events that matter most. He owes the European Tour nothing. Gwk