Rory McIlroy: ‘Trump’s campaign was pure entertainment’
Four-time major champion talks politics, pressure and feeling sorry for Tiger Woods
Rory McIlroy has not won a major since the US PGA Championship in 2014 but is determined to change that this year. Photo: Warren Little/Getty Images
McIlroy says he feels sorry for Tiger Woods and the pressure he has to deal with. Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
McIlroy is due to marry Erica Stoll this year. Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images
It would have seemed unfathomable in 2014, when Rory McIlroy was celebrating victory at the US PGA Championship at Valhalla, that his haul of four majors would remain unchanged in 2017. It is still a source of general bemusement. As he contemplates his return from a rib injury at next week’s World Golf Championship in Mexico, McIlroy makes it clear his competitive fire has never burned more intensely.
“I want to be the best golfer in the world,” he says. “I want to be ranked the best golfer in the world. I want everyone to think I’m the best golfer in the world.
“There is nothing like that feeling of winning a major. I won the FedEx Cup last year and that was great, as was being part of the Ryder Cup the following week, but for me winning a major? There is no greater feeling in golf.
“Knowing you are writing your name into history books where nobody can take that away from you, or having your name on those famous trophies. That’s the thing that really gets me going and I haven’t felt that for a while. I want to have that feeling again.
“That’s not to do with ego or me trying to say: ‘I’m the best.’ It’s about the elation and adrenaline rush you get. I’ve had a lot of spare time over the last few weeks and I watched Congressional [where he won the 2011 US Open] back, I watched Valhalla back. Being in the heat of the battle, getting that rush, that’s the thing that gets me going. I haven’t had that for a while and I want it back.”
Golf was different for McIlroy then. He had won the BMW PGA Championship in May and the Open in July. He brushes aside the suggestion that this run made it almost inevitable he would win at Valhalla. “Yes, I was making majors look … not routine but I’d won four in four years,” he says. “I haven’t won in a couple of years but the greatest players in the game have gone through stretches of no majors in a couple of years.
“Jack Nicklaus went through a stretch from 1967 to 1970. Tiger won 14 of them from 1997 to 2008, but that’s not normal. That is so far from the norm. I was averaging one a year over a four-year stretch which was fantastic and I could do it again; I’m 27, say I go on that run again, four majors by 31. All of a sudden, eight majors aged 31 and you are feeling OK about yourself.
“You just have to trust the process. This is a long career. I’ve seen it in society with this generation. People have become exceedingly impatient and I get that way myself sometimes. My time is going to come again when things fall my way and I win a few more. I’m confident of that. You can’t force the issue.”
Patience has been necessary for McIlroy since a stress fracture to a rib in mid-January. “I felt useless. I couldn’t even lift my suitcase,” he recalls. His recovery from the injury has offered him reinvigoration and an element of relaxation. “I could have probably pushed through to play the Honda Classic [this week]but I wanted to take that extra week to make sure and, even if it comes to the point where I’m not 100 per cent comfortable, I’ll take another couple of weeks off. But I’m on target for Mexico.
“It has been frustrating; you see Jordan Spieth win, Dustin Johnson win and it is never good to feel like you are falling behind. You feel like if you were out there, you might be able to do something about it.
“My short game is as sharp as it has ever felt because that was all I could work on for a while. My golf should be sharp enough. The big concern is just making sure I can play four rounds in a row without doing any damage again.
“I still have tournaments to get ready for Augusta, which is the biggest tournament of my year, and I’ve no problem saying that. It’s the one major I’m yet to win. As long as I’m good for that, I don’t care what it takes. That’s my main goal and it will continue as my main goal until I win it.”
Last weekend McIlroy accepted an invitation from Donald Trump, who is making a habit of taking to the fairways with the sport’s biggest names, to play a round with the US president at the Trump International in Florida. He says he is “massively” interested in the US political scene.
“I really got into it once Trump ran because I knew him a little bit but at the same time I was intrigued how a successful businessman could transition into running for the highest office in the land,” McIlroy says. “It is a totally different process from the UK. He obviously came at it from a completely different angle.
“I’ve said it to the man himself; on a Tuesday night at a tournament, if there was a live [political]debate, I would get room service, stick on CNN and just watch. It was pure entertainment, even if you didn’t understand politics it was this complete phenomenon.
“Something like this probably won’t happen again in our lifetime. I’m very attuned to it, I watch a lot of news. You can’t avoid it. I had no interest in politics until a couple of years ago; now I can’t seem to get away from it.
“I feel like I’ve stayed unpolitical in terms of Northern Ireland and all that goes on there but because I’m not an American I don’t feel a real part of it; I’m just interested by the phenomenon of it all. I don’t really care about the policies. The whole circus, this big show is intriguing to watch.”
Not lost on McIlroy is the switching of next week’s tournament from Doral, which Trump owns, to Mexico City. “Logistically Doral was one of the favourites for the players because you’d play the Honda Classic, drive an hour and a half and be there,” he adds. “With everything that has happened over the past few months, I wouldn’t be surprised to see us back at Doral at some point.
“It was the Trump show for the past couple of years but that’s understandable; you had a guy running to be president of the United States, of course it would be that way. It will be a little bit different now but I think it’s a good thing to take World Golf Championships around the world. I’d love to see a WGC in Australia or South Africa.”
McIlroy has watched the recent struggles of Woods with a sympathetic eye. Although he only implies it, one wonders if McIlroy believes the 14-time major winner moved past the point of golfing return when withdrawing from the Dubai Desert Classic.
“I never thought I would say this but I felt sorry for him,” says McIlroy. “I just felt bad for the guy that his body won’t allow him to do what he wants to do. I can’t imagine anything so debilitating where you can’t even stand up to do a press conference.
“Tiger was a child star, he was used to being out there winning golf tournaments since he was 10. I know that’s not what he values his life around but it must be hard to still want to do that but have it taken away because you can’t physically get to where you want to be. Obviously there is a physical battle there but there has to be a mental struggle as well.
“I’m glad that he has other things in his life. He has his kids and is so committed to them. If he didn’t have that it would be so hard. He is still young, he has another half of his life to live. Golf is minuscule compared to watching your kids grow up. That’s where my priority would be now.
“Playing tournament golf would be a bonus and awesome but life is more important than golf, which is what people have to remember when talking about Tiger Woods. Everyone sees him as a golfer, not a person. Tiger doesn’t owe anyone in the game. He has nothing to prove to anyone. I just hope he gets healthy and happy.”
McIlroy’s desire to embrace a life outside the ropes remains one of his most endearing qualities. That won’t change. “You’re a journalist but does journalism consume you?” he asks. “No, you obviously have other interests and other things going on in your life. It’s the same for me. I’m a golfer but golf doesn’t consume me. It’s a big part of my life but not all of it. I have lots of other things that I’m interested in and passionate about. There’s a balance there. You need that balance. Jack Nicklaus, who has the greatest major record of all time, wasn’t consumed by golf. He got away from it, spent time with his family but once he was playing golf, in that role, he was consumed; which is what I’m like. You have to be able to switch on and switch off.
“It has taken me a while to deal with external pressure. I’m now very comfortable in my own skin. I’m comfortable with who I am. I feel like winning majors isn’t what defines me; I have other things in my life. Look, this is my career and what I’ve always dreamed of but there are other things that are important to me as well. All I try to do is please my expectation and, if I do that, I’m doing OK. I know what people think, what people say, what people believe I should achieve, but sometimes those expectations don’t match up with mine.”
Could McIlroy step away from the sport which has afforded him fame and fortune relatively early? “I’ll be in a position where hopefully I’ll have that choice to make,” he says. “Right now if someone says to me ‘You are 45 and not playing on tour, what do you do?’ I’d struggle to find an answer but that may be different in 15 years’ time.
“My life will change in the near future with getting married, I’m sure we’ll try to start a family not right after that but a little time after that. Things change, you grow up and priorities become different. That’s not a bad thing. Some guys have played their best golf after that transition in their life. Until I’m 35 at least, maybe 40, I have a really good chance where hopefully I’ll be healthy and in my prime to give this a good go, making the best career for myself that I possibly can.” McIlroy has never sounded so professionally driven. Perhaps this serves as an indicator of things to come.