For all the reading Rory McIlroy’s been doing over the past number of years, he badly misread the room during his RBC Heritage pre-tournament press conference on Wednesday.
He was lobbed a softball by one reporter who asked McIlroy if he appreciated the trickier situation in which European-based PGA Tour players find themselves in, logistically speaking, what with this whole global pandemic thing still floating about.
‘Of course – obviously times are unprecedented and we all respond to crisis in different ways and have different priorities – it’s tough.’
Next question. Move on. Let’s get this thing over with.
But Rory didn’t say that, and as much as I shower him in praise for his outspokenness on so many subjects, I can’t help think his opening one-over par round of 72 was somewhat influenced by a niggling pinch of regret and an unnecessary personal burden brought on by what he actually answered:
“I mean, if you really care about your career and care about moving forward, you should be here, I think. Last week was 70 World Ranking points for the winner, this week 74.
“And I get there’s different variables and families and stuff involved, but we all have the means to rent a very nice house in a gated community in Florida and — you know, it’s not a hardship for two weeks to come over and quarantine. I mean, it’s fine. My caddie Harry came over and did it. He stayed in our guest house. The two weeks flew by.
“Yeah, I honestly don’t understand the guys complaining because there is a solution to it. You can come over here and do what needs to be done.”
Ouch – did you really mean that? McIlroy was given the chance to renege, even rein it in a little, with a follow-up question that suggested the quarantine requirements on either side of the Atlantic might turn a three week playing spell into a nine-week reality for these European-based stars.
“I do appreciate that, but it’s not as if — you know, most kids, it’s sort of the end of the school year. I know a few kids that went back to school. Again, you can bring your family with you. We all have the means to do that.
“Look I don’t quite — it might seem a little harsh, but I don’t get that mindset, especially if you care about your career and you want to advance.”
With the can of worms well and truly ajar, it’s no wonder the knives have been out for McIlroy in many circles since, but what did he have to gain from this latest soundbite?
For starters, Rory doesn’t have kids and doesn’t know the circumstances of many players who do. And then there’s the whole coronavirus thing – remember that? – where the United States – number one, yeah baby! – is still outdoing itself in recording record numbers of new cases in the midst of this PGA Tour return. I don’t know anyone putting their hand up to swim in Trump infested waters lately, career or no career, so why would McIlroy heap pressure on those keeping their distance?
And then there’s the world rankings debacle that’s largely responsible for putting these European-based players in the awkward position of having to decide between their spot on the ladder and a trip to the centre of the Universe – the U.S of A. Call me old fashioned but no world golf, no world rankings, but there seems to be little democracy in play when it comes to the needs of the PGA Tour.
So yeah, Rory could’ve answered that question with a little more compassion, sympathy, candour. I mean, what skin off his nose would it have been to agree and move on, as a team leader in the European Ryder Cup locker room to boot.
Enter first round leader, Ian Poulter. Known as the Postman in Ryder Cup circles, Poulter was on point once more, delivering the ideal response when asked about his grounded comrades on the Continent and his own playing ambitions amid Covid-19.
“It’s difficult, but what’s the right thing, and what’s the wrong thing to do in this scenario when you’ve got 16 of the top 20 players playing here this week,” said Poulter to Sky Sports. “We had six of the top 10 last week playing as well.
“So, it feels a little unjust to the guys in Europe that aren’t playing, but how can you not have World Ranking points in a tournament like this when you’ve got this level of a field?
“There are definitely going to be some guys that have missed opportunities, and it’s going to be tough. I sympathise. I don’t know what the right answer would have been.
“But, again, if you don’t play for any points and somebody wins the first two events, and with this many points on the table I potentially could move from 60 in the world to top 20 with two wins. So, it wouldn’t be fair if I was in that position either.”
Notes for Rory
Learnings: Say it’s difficult. Avoid putting yourself in players’ shoes during a pandemic. Sympathise.
Recommended reading: Lord of the Flies. Just because you have the conch, it’s not always wise to speak.