Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The PGA Tour needs Rory McIlroy at his best, especially now

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Of course, the story of the week is about him. How fitting. He’s a book that can’t be put down.

Just so happens that Rory McIlroy is playing some of his best golf in years. He won his past two events, and he’s back at Valhalla, where he last won a major tournament 10 years ago. It’s a leggy golf course built to reward those who can mash drives a country mile. McIlroy tends to hit them about two miles.

“It’s all about confidence and momentum,” McIlroy said Wednesday, “and I have a lot of confidence and quite a bit of momentum.”

Yes, the year’s second major is at hand, and McIlroy, at long last, is perfectly tuned and has his swagger and …

Plot twist!

Why McIlroy chose this Monday of PGA Championship week to file for divorce from Erica Stoll, his wife of seven years, we may never know. McIlroy doesn’t want to talk about it. He was settling in for Wednesday’s pre-tournament press conference when a PGA rep announced to media members that McIlroy did not wish to comment on “his private life.” It was easy to know what that meant.

With most pro golfers, and most athletes in general, their “private life” of love and relationships wouldn’t be all that newsworthy.

With McIlroy, TMZ first reported his divorce filing.

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Golf star McIlroy files for divorce days before PGA Championship

Rory McIlroy has filed for divorce from his wife of seven years, Erica Stoll, just days before the start of the PGA Championship at Valhalla.

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Excessive public attention over a painful personal dissolution would be a curse for anyone, and certainly for McIlroy’s chances this week. At the same time, it has further confirmed his stature as a bona fide, global sports celebrity. And that continues to make his presence a blessing for golf.

This sport needs a superstar like McIlroy at his best, especially now.

As you’re probably aware, pro golf isn’t in a good place. TV ratings are down. Popularity is waning. Casual fans are playing golf, but they are tuning out on watching it, having grown sick of the greed and selfishness and how none of what’s happening is a reflection of what the public wants. These days, golf is mostly about division. It’s a weakened PGA Tour versus the villainous LIV Tour, which paid good players to make them basically disappear for all but four tournaments each year.

More: Jon Rahm ditched the PGA Tour for LIV Golf. So why is he talking like a PGA fanboy?

Meanwhile, a supposed reconciliation between tours, thus bringing the best golfers back together again, doesn’t appear close to happening. The latest alarming development was businessman Jimmy Dunne, a noted dealmaker in the sport, recently resigning from the PGA Tour’s Policy Board. “Really, really disappointing,” said McIlroy when asked about it. “I think the Tour is in a worse place because of it.”

With the PGA Tour clearly reeling, a lack of star power and personality isn’t helping.

Questions during McIlroy’s Wednesday press conference were cut off at only nine minutes, as if he’d only agreed to put himself through the ordeal if promised a quick exit.

Take note, though, that he still showed up.

That’s more than could be said for Xander Schauffele (world No. 3), who blew off his scheduled PGA press conference Tuesday afternoon. Three others high in the world rankings – Wyndham Clark (No. 4), Viktor Hovland (No. 7) and Patrick Cantlay (No. 8) – didn’t have an appearance scheduled at all.

McIlroy didn’t have to be there to field questions. It says something that he did, given the events of this week, and it was on brand. McIlroy has been stepping up as a leading, thoughtful voice during the recent turmoil, and that has increased popularity that goes back to when he was a youngster first taking golf by storm. When McIlroy won the 2014 PGA Championship in dwindling daylight at Valhalla, it was his fourth major victory in three years.

“I thought at that point in time that we might see Rory win 10 major championships,” said Andy North, former golfer and ESPN analyst.

But now, McIlroy is 35 years old, and his most recent major victory is that PGA in 2014. Greatness has been elusive, but McIlroy remains a huge name who has a big game. His sport needs more of those.

The only golfer at the PGA this week with a bigger following is Tiger Woods, and he’s 48. The rare times that Tiger tees it up anymore, you’re holding your breath about him being physically able to finish.

More: At PGA Championship, Tiger Woods is looking to turn back time

Who’s got next behind Woods and McIlroy as the face of the PGA Tour? It’s tough to say.

World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler seems like a great dude with whom you’d enjoy hanging out. But bless his heart, he has no desire to be that celebrity we can’t stop talking about. Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Jon Rahm were bought out by LIV, and as for once-promising talents like Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth or Rickie Fowler, their games have too often been letting them down of late.

The public’s appetite still exists for golf, as proven by the success of Netflix’s wonderful “Full Swing” series that was allowed to go behind the curtain into golfers’ lives, highlighting who they really are. It was refreshing because that so rarely happens in this sport.

Take a guess who featured prominently in each of the show’s two seasons.

Yup. McIlroy.

He’s that guy. Even more so, he doesn’t mind being that guy we all want to watch. If that guy can endure his personal drama and play himself into contention Sunday at Valhalla, a lot of eyes out there will be watching.

And golf, now more than ever, needs that.

Reach sports columnist Gentry Estes at gestes@gannett.com and on the X platform (formerly known as Twitter) @Gentry_Estes.

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