Rory McIlroy strikes a more conciliatory tone on ‘wonderful ambassador’ Mickelson

‘Hopefully he comes back at some stage and he will; and people will welcome him back’

Of course he was going to be asked. Dressed in black, with the swoosh logo clearly displayed on cap and golf top, Rory McIlroy sat comfortably in his seat at a media conference ahead of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando and waited, and waited.

Finally, it came. Seventeen questions in, McIlroy was asked about Phil Mickelson, or rather the fallout of Lefty's recent views on the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabia-backed proposed breakaway league which had led to Mickelson losing so many of his blue chip sponsors. Mickelson had claimed the PGA Tour acts like a "dictatorship" and that he was using the threat of a breakaway league to "reshape" how it operated.

Many of those corporate super brands had walked after Mickelson’s views were revealed, and after McIlroy – for one – had so articulately rowed in, from being a peer on tour and as a member of the PGA Tour’s policy board, to fillet the reigning US PGA champion who, yet again, is an absentee from a big tournament this week.

“It is unfortunate,” accepted McIlroy, who adopted a diplomatic tone – and use of words – and, perhaps with compassionate reflection of what it had all cost Mickelson in reputation and financially, continued: “I think Phil has been a wonderful ambassador for the game of golf, still is a wonderful ambassador . . . it’s unfortunate that a few comments that he thought he was making in confidence or off the record got out there and were , not used against him, but this whole situation is unfortunate.”

(Let’s, for context, note here that the journalist and author Alan Shipnuck has claimed the comments were never off the record.)

Anyway, onward.

McIlroy added: “Look, we all make mistakes. We all say things we want to take back. No one is different in that regard. But we should be allowed to make mistakes, and we should be allowed to ask for forgiveness and for people to forgive us and move on. Hopefully he comes back at some stage and he will; and people will welcome him back and be glad that he is back.”

While Mickelson (who, as if to rub salt into wounds, lost out to Tiger Woods in the Player Impact Programme for 2021) remains out of sight for now, McIlroy is among those back at Bay Hill looking to challenge for the Tiffany's designed Arnold Palmer Invitational on a course where he has traditionally contended and won once (in 2018).

McIlroy, in fact, has made the top 10 in each of the last five years: 4th-1st-6th-5th-10th.

“It’s one of these courses that I don’t feel like I have to do anything special to compete. I can play within myself. You take care of the Par 5s here. You play conservatively the rest of the way, especially how the golf course here has been set up the past few years.

“You play for your pars, and then you try to pick off birdies on the Par 5s and some of the easier holes. If you just keep doing that day after day, you’re going to find yourself around the top of the leaderboard. It’s been a course that has fit my eye from the first time I played here.”

However, he has noted that the course set-up this time has been changed. McIlroy explained: “It’s a different course set-up this year. I don’t quite, not understand, but it’s a departure from what they’s done the last few years. The rough is thick off the fairways, but then what they’ve done is they’ve taken out a lot of those run-off areas off the greens where historically it’s been you’d miss a green and run off and you’d still have the chip off short grass, for example, and now that’s all been filled in with rough.

“There’s just so many areas that there were run-offs and sort of tight areas, which I think lends itself to the better chippers of the golf ball, and that’s been sort of taken away this year. I don’t quite understand why they’ve done that, but it’s definitely a different test than one in previous years.”

One of four Irish players in the field this week, along with Séamus Power, Pádraig Harrington and Graeme McDowell, McIlroy is looking for a first win of 2022 but coming in lightly raced and on the back of some good performances, with his closest chance coming in the Dubai Desert Classic (where he was third after finishing with a bogey). Elsewhere, he was tied-12th in the HSBC Abu Dhabi and tied-10th at the Genesis.

“I felt like the three tournaments that I’ve played this year, I’ve played pretty well. I had a pretty solid week at Riviera [the Genesis] without doing anything really special. I had a good weekend. I think just more of the same.

“I’ve driven the ball pretty well. I’ve seen a bit of improvement in iron play. My short game’s been really good. If anything, just getting the consistency to a point where I feel like I can play like that day-in and day-out. But the game feels good, so just sort of trying to keep doing what I’m doing.”

And, of course, there's always the aim to acquire another of those iconic Arnie Palmer cardigans. So, where's the one he won in 2018? "It's in my wardrobe. I have not broken it out since then. It's a little scratchy. It wouldn't be that comfortable on the skin but it's obviously very, very nice to have in the wardrobe. The tradition, the cardigan, I think it's one of the coolest trophies that we have in golf."

Harrington, incidentally, is aiming to bounce back from a missed cut at last week's Honda Classic where, having missed the weekend by a shot, it was discovered after his second round that his 3-wood was cracked. It has since been replaced.

Philip Reid’s Arnold Palmer Invitational Lowdown

Purse: €10.7 million (€1.9 million to the winner)

Where: Orlando, Florida

The course: Known as "Arnie's Place" for its long-time association with Arnold Palmer, Bay Hill – 7,466 yards, par 72 – was designed by Dick Wilson and Joe Lee and features copious water hazards. The finishing two holes typically provide for exciting finishes to a tournament with a rich history, held at the venue every year since 1979.

The Par-3 17th measures 221 yards from an elevated tee to a green which has water lurking on three sides and a large bunker; the Par 4 18th is a 458 yards hole that features a slightly blind tee shot to the fairway and an approach to a long, narrow green that again has water in play down the right.

The field: Bryson DeChambeau, last year's winner, had originally entered but withdrew from the event due to injury. Still, there is a top-class field headlined by world number one Jon Rahm, recent Phoenix Open winner Scottie Scheffler and past champion Rory McIlroy along with Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, who is edging closer to this defence of that title at Augusta National. There are three places in the 150th Open at St Andrews up for grabs for those not already exempt.

Quote-Unquote: "For me, the first thing when I think of Arnie, I think of his golf swing. As someone who doesn't have a perfect golf swing like myself, it's kind of fun seeing his follow through and seeing the way he played golf, playing so aggressively and kind of with a quirky swing. I look up to him a lot." – Scheffler remembering Arnold Palmer.

Irish in the field: Graeme McDowell is in a group with Justin Rose and Zach Johnson (12.54pm Irish time off the 10th); Rory McIlroy is grouped with Sepp Straka and Adam Scott (1.27pm, off the 10th); Pádraig Harrington is in a group with Scott Piercy and Sam Ryder (4.40pm, off the 1st); Séamus Power is grouped with Michael Thompson and Matthew Wolff (5.13pm, off the 10th).

Betting: Still chasing a breakthrough PGA Tour win, Will Zalatoris – who attended Wake Forest on an Arnold Palmer scholarship – could hardly find a better place to achieve that goal; his form is good too – two top-10s in his last three outings, including a runner-up in the Farmers Insurance – so he is worth a look at 25-1 to break his duck . . . Séamus Power is looking to bounce back after a couple of missed cuts and is a 66-1 each-way look.

On TV: Live on Sky Sports Golf (from 3pm).

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times