Perspective | Golf is unforgiving. Rory McIlroy remains undaunted.

HOYLAKE, England — The words all those years ago, when the British Open was last staged at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, focused not on what had happened but what was to come. There was an air of inevitability about it all.

“We used to say there will never be another Nicklaus,” Phil Mickelson said back then, in 2014. “And then along came Tiger. You never want to discount the possibility of someone coming along and dominating.”

He was talking about Rory McIlroy, who had just won his third major. McIlroy departed this venue only a Masters short of a career Grand Slam. He was all of 25.

“Golf is looking for someone to put their hand up and try,” McIlroy said, just as he put his hand up and tried. “ … I want to be that person. I want to be the guy that goes on and wins majors and wins majors regularly.”

Later that summer, he won the very next major he played, the PGA Championship. He hasn’t won another in the nine years since.

So in advance of the 151st British Open, McIlroy’s story is simultaneously old and tired and fresh and optimistic. The season’s final major comes as McIlroy is clearly the fulcrum of a fractured sport and just days after he won the Scottish Open.

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There are so many layers here. That makes sense, in a way, because a 34-year-old husband and father is bound to be more complex than a 25-year-old free-swinging savant. Innocence is forever a victim of time. The McIlroy of 2014 hadn’t faced a setback from which he couldn’t return. A collapse at the 2011 Masters was followed by a resounding win at the U.S. Open at Congressional. A winless 2013 was followed by two majors in 2014. When he said he wanted to put his hand up and try, that he wanted to be the guy, the entire sport seemed to say: “Yes, please! Go do it!”

And in many ways, he has. The funny thing about this drought — 33 consecutive majors entered without a victory, which followed a stretch during which he won four in 15 tries — is that it’s only a drought in the most important events. For the most part, McIlroy has maintained his spot as one of the world’s best players even as he hasn’t won the world’s most important events.

He was No. 1 in the world rankings after that win at the 2014 PGA Championship and regained the spot in 2015, 2020 and 2022. Since the summer of 2014, he has won 12 times on the PGA Tour, four times on the European tour (now known as the DP World Tour) and three times in events co-sponsored by both, including this past weekend in North Berwick, Scotland. He has won the PGA Tour’s season-ending Tour Championship three times.

And in the majors, he has come so close — so very close — so many times. Last year’s British Open, where he was steamrolled by Cameron Smith’s closing 64, comes to mind. Last month’s U.S. Open, where he couldn’t manage a single birdie over the final 17 holes and lost to Wyndham Clark, does as well.

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Through all this, he also has taken on a burden through his forward-facing role sticking up for the PGA Tour, which is trying to maintain global control of the game even as Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund injects it with new ideas and untold cash. McIlroy was against the formation of LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed renegade series, and plainly said as much. He coupled with Tiger Woods to oversee a historic meeting last summer that not only held the PGA Tour together but changed it — for the betterment of the best players. And even as McIlroy has expressed a desire to focus on his golf, it seems as if he can’t help himself with brutally frank assessments of the situation. The LIV-PGA Tour joining of forces is still the sport’s dominant storyline. And because so much about it is undetermined, opinions matter.

Up steps McIlroy to a microphone.

“If LIV Golf was the last place to play golf on Earth, I would retire,” McIlroy told reporters after the first round of the Scottish Open. “That’s how I feel about it.”

It is nearly impossible for him to avoid saying what he feels. For more than a year, it has been clear that McIlroy is the conscience of his sport. It is also clear by now: That’s not for everyone.

“I think you have certain guys that like to be in that position and other guys that like to avoid that kind of stuff,” world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler said here Tuesday. “A lot of times Rory seemed to be one of those guys who enjoyed it and was right in the forefront of it. I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily my style. …

“Not that focusing on the merger is a bad thing. We need people to be there, and Rory’s done a great job as kind of one of the leaders for our tour. But there’s also a number of other players that have stepped up as well,” Scheffler said, sitting on a dais in front of a microphone. “ … Some people do more of it sitting here versus behind the scenes.”

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None of what McIlroy does is behind the scenes anymore. His decision to cancel a formal, pretournament news conference — a routine part of major weeks for prominent players — can amount to noteworthy, never mind that he spoke briefly with reporters near the practice area here Monday and Tuesday. His words carry weight, but that also weighs on him. It’s tough to have such important and influential opinions on the sport’s future while you’re desperately trying to make history in the present.

That brings us back to this past Sunday. McIlroy stepped to the 18th tee needing a birdie to break a tie with Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre. For his approach, he needed to cover 202 yards but also play beneath a wind gusting to 40 mph. He pulled a 2-iron and laced it underneath the gale to perhaps 10 feet. The game, it’s in there.

“That’s probably going to be up there with one of the best shots I’ll hit in my career,” he said.

He made the putt. He won. And afterward, he spent time greenside gazing into the grandstands, basking in the adulation. The PGA Tour vs. LIV Golf, us vs. them? It melted away.

“I get to do this, not for a living,” he said. “But I get to do this to try to fulfill my boyhood dreams.”

What a thought, from a man not yet fully formed but certainly all grown up in multifaceted ways. Rory McIlroy has a responsibility to his sport because he has helped shape it — and hopes to continue in coming months and years. But he also has a responsibility to himself. There’s another major at hand. Will it be his 34th straight without a trophy — or, finally, No. 5?


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