Rory McIlroy Declares Primary Focus on America Over European Tour
Rory McIlroy has always done things his own way, and he once again raised a few eyebrows by deciding to kick off his 2019 season by competing in the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua in Hawaii. For most of us, taking part in a limited field comprised of just tournament winners, being staged at one of the most beautiful places on Earth, would be a no-brainer but the Northern Irishman has never played here before, even though he has qualified many times.
His reasons for the change of heart this time are interesting, if not entirely convincing. Towards the end of 2018, he hinted that he was considering giving up his European Tour membership because he wanted to focus on the PGA Tour. If he had gone ahead, it would have meant that Europe would have had to do without him at the Ryder Cup next year, and Keith Pelley, the Tour’s chief executive, was so concerned that he took himself off to Northern Ireland to attempt to persuade McIlroy to change his mind.
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He normally starts his season at the Abu Dhabi Championship but insists that he is in Hawaii not for the views or the hospitality but because he is tired of playing catch-up in the PGA Tour’s Fall Series. This ignores the fact that he won the FedEx Cup in 2016 on a reduced schedule, while dividing his time between America and Europe. The bottom line is that if his form were good enough throughout the season, he would have no such problems contending for the FedEx Cup.
“I’m sick of getting to Florida in February and being like 100th in the FedEx Cup,” McIlroy said. “It’s going to be nice to get a faster start and hopefully be up in the FedEx Cup from the beginning.”
The four-time major champion has been criticised by a number of figures within the game for suggesting that he might play fewer events in Europe in 2019. Former Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, who is one of the most respected figures within the sport, described McIlroy’s thinking as being very disappointing. European Tour players are required to play at least four events on the circuit outside the majors and World Golf Championships. It is hardly what you would describe as a massive commitment and is designed to allow players to spend time in America, but McIlroy has indicated he might only play two. And he wouldn’t have won himself any friends by insisting in Hawaii that he doesn’t feel any obligation to play regularly on the European Tour.
“A lot of guys have this sort of loyalty to the European Tour, which is great,” McIlroy said. “But it’s not as if we all got handed starts; you’ve got to qualify to get on. I’m still going to play in Europe and the fans are still going to see me play — maybe not as regularly as it used to be — but that’s just a product of where the global schedule is right now and where my life is right now. I’ve travelled the world for 12 years playing professional golf. I’m still going to be a world player, but I don’t want that hopping back and forth over the Atlantic as much as I used to do.”
McIlroy feels a heavier U.S. schedule suits both his family and career as he approaches 30. “My life’s here; I live in the States [and] my wife is American,” he said. “Everything is moving this way in the world; it just makes sense.” McIlroy played 18 events on the PGA Tour in 2018, banking more than $4 million in prize money courtesy of his Arnold Palmer Invitational victory and six other top-10s.
He said the PGA Tour has “better fields, deeper fields and golf courses that probably suit my game a little bit more. It’s where I’ve had the majority of success in my career. Obviously, I’ve played well in Europe and done well but I feel comfortable over here. I know that if I play well I can be very successful.”
McIlroy’s last win on the PGA Tour came in March, when he finally ended an 18-month drought going back to the 2016 Tour Championship.
“I’m finally healthy, I’m feeling good, I’ve got the schedule I want and I’m settled in my life,” said McIlroy, who struggled with injuries in both 2017 and 2015. “I had 10 top-10s worldwide [in 2018], I played in six final groups, I had probably 10 realistic chances to win but to only convert one of them was disappointing. But it’s about putting myself in those positions, so the more often I do that the better. Last year was probably getting to that point and this year is a clear road ahead.”
This is not the first time he has ruffled feathers. He once described the Ryder Cup as an exhibition event - a view he changed after experiencing it for himself. And after deciding not to playing in the golf tournament at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio he announced that he felt under no obligation to be seen as a role model, despite the fact that he recognised many youngsters had taken up the game after watching him play. And there is also a nagging question: if 2019 turns out to be another struggle, what does he do next? Golf needs Rory McIlroy, but he should be under no illusions that he needs the European Tour and, no matter what he may believe, he does owe it something.
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