Rory McIlroy all business as he focuses on Major bid amid divorce proceeding

World number two is in top form but in Scottie Scheffler he faces a competitor who has won all before him this year

All business. Just about the golf, with – for a change – none of the outside white noise that has accompanied him for a year or more. Rory McIlroy’s pre-championship press conference at Valhalla Golf Club lasted all of eight minutes 15 seconds and focused entirely on golf, with understandably no comments or questions about his private life, as the 35-year-old Northern Ireland’s ability to compartmentalise things faces its greatest test in the season’s second Major.

For a player who has juggled playing with acting, at times, as a negotiator in men’s professional golf’s ongoing bid to heal itself, with the PGA Tour and LIV fracturing the sport at its core, McIlroy – who filed court papers earlier this week for a divorce from his wife Erica Stoll – has returned to the scene of his last of four Major titles, 10 years on, with a bullish intent to make golf itself his main focus.

As it is, the two leading players in the world rankings head into this championship in the form of their lives: Scottie Scheffler, the world number one, has won four of his last five tournaments including the Masters; McIlroy, the world number two, has won on his last two outings, in the Zurich Classic and the Wells Fargo. Scheffler, of course, was absent for both of those wins as he awaited the birth of his son.

Yet, it is far from a two-horse race in thoroughbred country. Brooks Koepka, the defending champion, has been making noise of his own in the breakaway world of LIV. Ludvig Åberg, wearing a knee brace as a support for an injured knee, will be looking to follow a runners-up finish in the Masters with another strong performance in only his second career Major. Olympic gold medallist Xander Schauffele will look for redemption following being put in his place by McIlroy in the final round at Quail Hollow. There are others, too, with genuine hopes.


McIlroy – one of three Irish players in the field, along with Shane Lowry and Pádraig Harrington – was the winner in 2014, the last time the PGA was held at Valhalla. On that occasion, the then 25-year-old became the third youngest player to win four Majors (with only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods younger). But his quest to add to that career CV has been a barren one in the interim, a decade of 10 top-5s and 20 top-10s but without making it to five.

Could this be the time? In McIlroy’s world, of course it could.

McIlroy, as he proved during his time as the primary mouthpiece in defence of the PGA Tour on LIV’s arrival and then as an inside influence on the board and now on the transaction committee, has an ability to let golf be the main deal. To compartmentalise things, never more so than this week of weeks.

And winning, and the momentum that feeds into a player, is on his side as much as it is on Scheffler’s. The win in the Zurich, in partnership with Lowry, was he admitted a “fun” experience. But the win in Charlotte last week showcased exactly how good each and every compartment of his game has become since the barren spell of earlier in the season.

“I would say from a technical standpoint, some of the shots that I hit last week, some of the three-quarter shots, some of the wedge shots, some of the iron shots, combined with how good I feel with the driver at the minute. You know, when I can see those three-quarter shots and those wedge shots going and starting on the right line, that obviously gives me a lot of confidence,” admitted McIlroy, although the driver – as ever – is the key weapon in the bag.

As he put it of his TaylorMade Qi10 driver: “Honestly it’s probably the best driver I’ve had in the last few years. I’ve really got comfortable with the driver, and I think some of the technical things in my swing are just a little bit better. The good drives are still very good but the bad drives aren’t as bad so the misses aren’t as wild.

“I think it’s all about confidence and momentum, and I have a lot of confidence and quite a bit of momentum coming into this week. It’s just about trying to keep that going, trying to play with freedom. I think this is a golf course that allows you to play with freedom because it’s a big golf course. The corridors are wide, not too dissimilar to last week at Quail Hollow, so you can open your shoulders up off the tee and try to take your chances from there.”

There have been some changes to the course since McIlroy’s win of 2014, playing slightly longer and with different grasses on the fairways. However, recent weather and the prospect of further rainfall in the coming days is expected to make it play long but with softer, more receptive greens.

If McIlroy would appear to be licking his lips and relishing the task at hand between the ropes at Valhalla, so too Scheffler, back on tour for the first time since following up his Masters win with another victory in the Heritage and then going back to family life awaiting the birth of his first son.

Now, it is also a case of getting back to business.

“At home it was a nice time to reflect a little bit on my career so far and where my life has gone. I married my high school sweetheart and I always wanted to play professional golf and now I’m here. I was sitting there with a newborn in my arms and the green jacket in the closet. It was a pretty special time I think at home. But at the same time, I think the competitiveness in me doesn’t let me reflect too much and I was trying to do my best to get ready to play this week,” said Scheffler.

All eyes on the Wanamaker. He ... and McIlroy. And everyone else.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times