Rory McIlroy has won twice, finished runner-up in a major and put in his best ever Ryder Cup performance as he led Europe to a memorable victory in Rome, but despite adding a fifth Harry Vardon Trophy to his year’s accolades, the newly crowned DP World Tour Race to Dubai champion feels a little bittersweet when looking back on the season.
“Yeah, in fairness, I probably would have liked to have done it another way,” he said when asked about his fifth Race to Dubai win ahead of this week’s DP World Tour Championship. “But I’ve played well when I’ve came back over to The European Tour this year and won two Rolex Series Events and had some other really high finishes in tournaments that give a lot of points, and yeah, look, it’s really nice to have my name on the Harry Vardon Trophy for the fifth time and just be one behind Seve and still a few behind Monty.
“But you’re talking about the greats of the European game, and to be up alongside them is really, if someone had told 18-year-old Rory when I was making my professional debut in 2007 that I would have won five Order of Merits up to this point, I wouldn’t have believed them.
“Yeah, really, really cool. I certainly don’t take it for granted, and you know, it shows the consistency that I’ve played with over the last few years that even though I feel like I’ve had a good year, I don’t feel like I’ve had a great year, but I can still go ahead and achieve things like this.”
Both of McIlroy’s wins in 2023 have come on the DP World Tour, first taking the Dubai Desert Classic for a third time with a 72nd hole birdie to beat Patrick Reed back in January, and then winning his second Rolex Series event at the DP World and PGA Tour co-sanctioned Genesis Scottish Open in July, where again, a 72nd hole birdie separated him from the chasing pack, but such are the standards that the world number two and four-time major winner holds himself to, he characterises it as a solid year with standout moments.
“Yeah, probably give it a 7 out of 10,” he said. “Played good golf. I had the two wins. I think the big — I had my best-ever Ryder Cup, which feels like a win to me, especially coming off the back of Whistling Straits.
“So I’ve been happy with the year. If I looked back on one thing, I’ll rue that miss at L.A. I had a great opportunity there to pick up another major and I didn’t. But I’m still not going to let that take away from the fact that it’s been another really consistent, solid year with some really good performances. I’m feeling like my game is in as good of shape as its ever been throughout my, whatever it is, 16-, 17-year career. I’m happy with that, and try to finish this year off on a high and play well this week and reset and get ready for 2024.”
2024 brings with it the TGL, the new arena-based golf league driven by TMRW Sports, in turn driven by McIlroy and Tiger Woods, and Rory is clear on what the end goal of the venture is, even if there are still of the final details yet to be clarified.
“Younger people hopefully,” he said when asked what TGL was bringing to golf. “That’s the future of our game is trying to get the younger generations involved and trying to have them somehow relate to our game in some way.
“So yeah, just a different demographic, trying to put golf on a slightly different platform, and you know, if we can increase the interest in the game for a younger demographic, hopefully golf doesn’t look like what we are doing in TGL 50 years from now because it is a game to be played outdoors and on golf courses and in the fresh air.
“But I think there’s a place for it to maybe get people excited about watching a different version of the game that they can relate to, and I guess if that gets their foot in the door in some way, that’s a really good thing.”
As part of the DP World Tour and PGA Tour’s Strategic Alliance, this year sees the top-10 ranked DP World Tour players not already exempt granted PGA Tour cards for 2024, something that has received criticism from many corners, but McIlroy feels that it’s just a formalising of a pathway that’s always existed.
“I got into the top 50 in the world at the end of 2008, and in 2009, I was going to start in the Middle East and then I was going to the States and play the Match Play, the Honda, the whatever else,” he explained. “It’s always been there. It’s just a bit more official.
“But at the same time, you know, the reason that The European Tour started was to give professional golfers opportunities to play golf tournaments and earn a living. So if you look at what the mission statement is for the DP World Tour, it’s to give professional golfers opportunities to play their sport, make a living, and there’s no better place to have opportunity and to make a living than what’s going on on the PGA Tour.
“So I don’t see that side of the argument at all. For golfers playing on The European Tour, I think it’s an amazing thing that’s happened and as I said, is formalizes a pathway to get to the very top level of professional golf.”
McIlroy would welcome more events being co-sanctioned by both of the established tours, and feels that bringing the game to new areas and new markets should be a priority, as well as re-establishing some of the traditional national opens as the marquee events that they should be.
“Absolutely. If we can create a perfect golf calendar, what would it look like? And I don’t think it would look like it looks right now. I think there would be changes made,” he replied when asked whether he’d support further integration between the tours, adding: “It’s being able to try to compare yourself to previous generations, and I look at the Australian Open trophy and I see the names on that. To me, that’s what being a professional golfer and being competitive is all about is being able to go and win all over the world, and to test yourself in different conditions on different grasses. I feel like I’ve been doing that for the last, you know, 15 years, and I think I’m better because of it.”
As the politics of golf continue to rumble on in the background, with the proposed merger with the PIF, the additional investors looking to get involved, as one of the leading players in the game and arguably, after Tiger, the most marketable star, McIlroy has found himself caught up in the centre but it’s not something he’s particularly enjoyed.
“Not what I signed for whenever I went on the [PGA Tour Policy] board,” he said. “But yeah, the game of professional golf has been in flux for the last two years.
“Again, the overall game I think is in really good shape. But everyone focuses on this top level because it is what it is, and it’s an entertainment product and it’s a show, but the faster that it gets rectified, I think the better for everyone.”