With the European Tour’s Race to Dubai series concluding on the same day that the PGA Tour’s refurbished fall season comes to an end, I think it’s safe to declare that the 2019 golf season is…over.
Yes, there’s the World Cup of Golf. Yes, there’s the Tiger vs. Phil match, which, as Rory McIlroy noted, is happening 15 years too late. And yes, there’s Tiger’s tournament in the Bahamas.
And—sorry—yes, the European Tour will be traversing the southern hemisphere, from Australia to Mauritius to South Africa. But in a sport with an unremitting calendar, fans have to take their breaks by force, and the next six weeks are the only break we’ll get.
Which means that if there’s ever a time to take a deep breath and evaluate the season behind us and the one to come, it’s now.
There’s a lot to talk about in recent days, from Danny Willett’s return from the dead at the DP Wold Tour Championship to the emergence of young Cameron Champ on the PGA Tour.
But, the story on everyone’s minds now, no surprise, is the aforementioned Rory McIlroy.
If you’ve missed the news, Rory told the media before the European Tour’s championship that he might not play enough tournaments to renew his membership for next season. He lives in America, and his declared primary goal is to win the Masters, which will be the final major he plays before turning 30.
His secondary goal is to win the Open Championship at Portrush. Beyond that, it’s unclear where his allegiance to the European Tour lies, but the new PGA Tour schedule, with bigger tournaments earlier in the season, certainly doesn’t help.
He needs to play four events minimum to retain his Euro Tour membership (not counting majors and WGCs), but as of now he only has two scheduled.
These things can change, but as of now it would technically mean that he can never captain a European Ryder Cup team—a rule that will nevertheless almost definitely be broken when it’s Rory’s time.
Paul McGinley, who is on the European Tour board and probably owes his Ryder Cup captaincy to Rory, who helped head off a potential mutiny seeking to put Colin Montgomerie in the top spot, wrote an op-ed for Sky Sports calling his decision “extraordinary.” He did not mean that in a good way.
Rory fired back, saying, “next year I am looking out for me. At the same time, I don’t have to make a decision on it. I didn’t say it was a definite. It is up in the air.”
Whatever the Northern Irishman decides in the end, this leads to larger questions about the state of his career.
On the verge of 30, leaves behind a complicated decade highlighted by triumph and, in the latter stages, a bit of disappointment.
When he won his fourth major at the 2014 PGA Championship, he was the undisputed king of the sport, and it was unthinkable on that day to imagine that four years later, as 2018 winds to a close, he wouldn’t have even one more major to his credit.
More, it would have been impossible to conceive that the man who was so clutch in taking the golf world by storm that summer would begin to falter, first imperceptibly and then overtly, in moments of high pressure.
It’s almost as though he became a new player as he entered his late 20s, and it was not an improvement.
Nevertheless, he’s still a top-ten golfer, he still contends for the big events, and though we’re no longer talking about whether he might equal Tiger’s total of 14 majors (much less Jack Nicklaus’ 18), there’s every reason to believe he could still become just the fifth golfer in history to win ten majors.
His legacy is at stake, and clearly he is making fundamental changes to his life in order to pursue the goals that have eluded him—especially the Masters, which has become Rory’s white whale.
Without a green jacket, there will always be a gaping vacancy in his CV, and the decision to eschew the European Tour’s opening events in Abu Dhabi and Dubai—regular stops for him, in the past—reflect a renewed focus on remedying that blemish.
As he stated in plain English, he is not afraid to take a selfish approach, and that may be exactly what he needs to rediscover that extra something that transformed him into a major winner.
The world looks very different for Rory in 2019 than it did in 2014.
Young stars have flooded the game, and the best of them—Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, and even Bryson DeChambeau—have already shown that they’re capable of winning at highest levels (or very near to the highest, in DeChambeau’s case).
The competition has never been so stiff, and to find that old magic, Rory will need to look within himself and find the quality he once possessed, and then summon something a little extra.
He’s already making moves, and whether those moves are the right ones is shaping up to be the biggest question—and the best story—of 2019.