Rory McIlroy values ​​legacy above money

Rory McIlroy once carried the burden of being the next Tiger Woods. He never reached those heights, who could he? — But he is becoming something equally remarkable: guardian of the vast history of golf.

At 33, McIlroy is old enough to have played in more than 50 majors, but young enough to still compete in them regularly. (Well, three days out of four, but still). That, combined with a clear love of the game’s story, gives him a perspective that encompasses both “things were better in the old days” and “where’s my next check from?”

With the benefit of that perspective, along with four majors, plus many millions in career earnings, McIlroy has planted his flag firmly on the PGA Tour course in his battle with LIV Golf’s new endeavor.

Speaking on the Tuesday before the US Open, and looking much more comfortable than Phil Mickelson on the same podium a day earlier, McIlroy framed the fight between the two tours as one of money versus legacy, of short-term riches versus a century-old history.

“The PGA Tour was created by people and tour players who came before us, like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer,” McIlroy said. “They created something and worked hard for something, and I hate to see all the players that came before us and all the hard work they’ve put in come to nothing.”

McIlroy also highlighted the Tour’s efforts as a charitable effort, with billions given to charities in the United States and around the world. “When you talk about the Tour and everything that’s going on right now, you have to look at the bigger picture than just golf,” McIlroy said. “I think I’ve tried to take a broader view of everything, and I think that’s the right thing to do.”

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It’s a poignant argument, especially for people who haven’t been offered eight- and nine-figure checks to play golf. But it also collides with the cold reality: legacy is not the same as money. All the magnanimous talk of Nicklaus and Palmer, all the soft piano music and dew-covered images of sunrises over dewy streets, don’t compare, for many gamers, to a big check for an easy job.

To his credit, McIlroy, unlike many of LIV’s fiercest critics or ardent supporters, understands that we live in a complex world with competing obligations and constant degrees of commitment.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and the vast majority of people I’ve met there are very, very nice people, but there are bad people everywhere. The bad people that came from that part of the world did absolutely horrendous things,” he said. “Today everything is so intertwined that it is difficult to separate sports from politics and dirty money from clean money. It’s a very complicated world right now.”

Still, McIlroy has a luxury that many players, particularly younger ones, don’t: the ability to play for legacy, not money. “It means a lot to go back to history and tradition and put your name on trophies that legends of the game have,” he said. “That’s really cool, and that’s something money can’t buy.”

He isn’t too concerned about the LIV Golf tour’s Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, the players who were successful in the 2000s and 2010s. Those players, in McIlroy’s words, “made his bed,” and the likelihood that they will contribute to the future of golf is relatively low.

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“They themselves would tell you that their best days are behind them,” he said. “That’s why I don’t understand guys who are a similar age to me leaving, because I’d like to believe that my best days are yet to come, and I think theirs too. So that’s where it feels like you’re taking the easy way out.”

McIlroy infamously declared LIV “dead in the water” in February, after Mickelson’s callous comments about Saudi atrocities forced him into exile for three months. On Tuesday, McIlroy admitted that he had missed the mark, but pointed out what had changed between then and now.

“I took a lot of player statements at face value. I guess I was wrong about that,” he said, indirectly referring to the likes of Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau. “You had people committed to the PGA Tour… I took them at their word and I was wrong.”

If LIV’s rise means McIlroy, Justin Thomas and other PGA Tour stars won’t face LIV notables as often, it will be a real loss for golf. McIlroy had a memorable battle with LIV’s Patrick Reed at the 2016 Ryder Cup and expressed admiration for the way both Johnson and DeChambeau have lengthened and expanded the game. But here, clearly, he is drawing a line in the sand.

“Legacy, reputation, at the end of the day that’s all you have,” McIlroy said. “You take everything away and you’re left with how you made people feel and what people thought of you. That’s important to me.”

It is a noble position. But will it be enough to sway other players tempted by tens of millions of Saudi dollars? That’s the existential threat facing the PGA Tour, and that’s the fight McIlroy could now fight for the rest of his career.

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BROOKLINE, MASSACHUSETTS - JUNE 14: Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy speaks to the media at a news conference during a practice round before the US Open at The Country Club on June 14, 2022 in Brookline, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy speaks to the media at a news conference during a practice round before the US Open at The Country Club on June 14, 2022 in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

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Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.