If PGA-LIV merger tells Rory McIlroy anything it should be that he puts himself first

Rory McIlroy - AP/Nathan Denette
Rory McIlroy - AP/Nathan Denette

Rory McIlroy’s wiring is such that he converts raw emotion into rocket fuel. So often, his demonstrative tendencies have produced a gripping one-man psychological case study.

Think of the 2018 Ryder Cup, where, riled by one bovine American fan mocking his technique on the Paris greens, he shouted: “Who can’t putt? I can putt. F------ come on.” Or recall his reaction to being served a subpoena by Patrick Reed last Christmas Eve, beating his nemesis by a single stroke in Dubai for a victory he described as “sweeter than it should be”.

He even appears able to channel tumult in his personal life to his competitive advantage. At Wentworth in 2014, he was visibly distraught about his split from his then fiancee, Caroline Wozniacki. Four days later, he had won the tournament. It is as if the more acute the grievance, the better he plays. All of which augurs promisingly for his golf after one of the most draining, distressing chapters of his professional life.

McIlroy has every reason to be seething at his treatment by the PGA Tour, which has betrayed all his diplomacy on its behalf by hitching its wagon to the same Saudi sovereign wealth fund that bankrolled the LIV breakaway.

He admitted at the Canadian Open that he felt like a “sacrificial lamb”. Selflessness has taken him nowhere in a sport that seems sometimes to revel in unfettered greed. As such, the only possible response to his public knifing by those he defended is to reinvent himself as the most selfish player he can be.

The approach worked beautifully against Reed. Furious at his arch-tormentor for ruining his family break with legal papers, he even went so far as to blank him on the driving range before exacting revenge on the course. It is an attitude he should replicate towards Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner. Forget all the extra ambassadorial duties, or all the attempts to act as the tour’s unofficial conscience.

Golf, as its rulers have shown this week by accepting an untold fortune from the very people they sought to condemn, does not have a conscience. It is a pursuit almost exclusively dedicated to personal enrichment and aggrandisement. And the one way for McIlroy to heed the lesson is to start putting himself first.

It will not be a natural transition for him to make. By inclination, McIlroy is a generous, likeable soul, honest to a fault and giving far more to golf than he takes away. But the benevolence has not been reciprocated.

Over 12 months, Monahan gave a grand total of two press conferences, his gutless leadership leaving McIlroy to navigate all the resentments and sensitivities around LIV alone. It cost him time, relationships with players, and an enormous amount of energy that could have been far more usefully deployed in service of ending his nine-year major drought.

McIlroy is astute enough to recognise how cynically he has been used. He has operated as a human shield for Monahan, and the only upshot is that Phil Mickelson, whom he called “naive and ignorant” for grasping the Saudi cash in full knowledge of the kingdom’s human rights abuses, is being allowed back on tour nearly £200 million richer. An even more dizzying nine-figure sum awaited McIlroy if he had chosen to take the same path. But he stayed put, only to discover just hours before the official announcement that Monahan was partnering with the Saudis regardless.

Two can play the mercenary game. Just as Mickelson has boasted of approaching billionaire status, McIlroy is not shy of accentuating his wealth in certain situations. Remember how, after a FedEx Cup win, he rubbed his fingers mischievously for the cameras to signal his £12 million bonus? This is the side to his character he needs to reawaken. Forget the PR for the PGA Tour, or the moral indignation towards the LIV rebels. All that might have buttressed his reputation in the short term, but it steered him away from his central task of winning the majors that his talent deserves.

It is one of the great privileges of sport to watch McIlroy in full flight. The trouble during the LIV episode is that it has happened only spasmodically, with the political machinations consuming much of his attention. Now, scalded by the saga, he would be well-advised to reorder his priorities. No more declarations of loyalty to paymasters who are oblivious to the very concept.

To be a serial champion once more, and not some dutiful career diplomat, McIlroy must start looking after No 1.

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