Rory McIlroy was the world No. 1, riding a streak of seven straight top-five finishes, and defending his title at the Players Championship in March when the PGA Tour pulled down the pandemic shutters. But it was a different McIlroy who re-emerged after lockdown, struggling with both his game and adapting to the new reality of fan-free events. He went winless in 2020, ending his year at the Masters, where he again missed out on a chance to complete the career grand slam, finishing in a tie for 5th.
In the midst of a two-month break from competitive golf — he will next play in January in Abu Dhabi — McIlroy talked with Golfweek about why he grades his 2020 as a “C,” what he saw Dustin Johnson do at Augusta National that he couldn’t do himself, hot button topics like the PGA Tour/European Tour deal and the distance debate, and whether he’s too damned “soft.”
Golfweek: Assign yourself a grade for your 2020.
Rory McIlroy: It was a strange year. [Pause] C.
GW: How do you arrive at that? Is the year automatically a disappointment if you don’t win a major?
Rory: No. I had a great year last year and I didn’t win a major. I came out of the back of last year playing some of the best golf I’d ever played, so I don’t at all think any year when you don’t win a major is a disappointment. I think any year you don’t win a tournament is a disappointment, and that’s obviously why this year is disappointing. It’s hard because I felt like I had a nice bit of momentum going at the start of the year. I was playing well and then everything stopped. And I struggled with the restart. It maybe took me longer to adjust to it than some other people.
GW: Was it a swing thing, a crowds thing, a comfort thing?
Rory: I think just mentally getting myself in the right place to play competitive golf. Every time I went out there for the first few weeks I just felt like I was playing a practice round. It felt like it didn’t count, like it didn’t matter. That was the overriding feeling I had. But then you get to the end of every week and boys are winning trophies, and it’s not as if it didn’t count.
By the end I got it figured out. And it’s not as if it’s going anywhere — you look at what’s happening and when we start next year there’s still not going to be any crowds. It was just an adjustment, and I didn’t adjust quite as fast as some other guys did.
GW: Tom Weiskopf just said in an interview with Golfweek that he doesn’t think you’ll win many more majors because you don’t have the determination or will to be the best, that money has made you complacent. What’s your response to that?
Rory: I’ve never met Tom Weiskopf in my life, he’s never met me. So he’s obviously making a statement based on what he sees from the outside, but I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. I’ve shown throughout my career that I care, that I want to win, that I want to be the best. And I’ve been the best. It’s not as if I’m out there in the clouds and not thinking about it. I try my heart out on every single shot, every single tournament that I play. I maybe deal better with disappointment than I used to. I saw the interview where he said he sees no frustration. Like, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I mean, look at the Zozo. I’m breaking clubs, so there’s a bit of frustration there [Laughs]. Obviously, he didn’t watch that round of golf.
GW: Do you think there’s a perception that you’re soft? That it doesn’t hurt you as much.
Rory: I don’t know if that’s soft that disappointment doesn’t hurt me as much, I think its a sign of resilience. I don’t want to say perseverance because I don’t think you need to persevere in golf. You persevere if you have a bad illness. I think persistence and resilience. I’ve had bad weeks and bad rounds, it’s part of golf. That’s the thing people don’t understand, and I think someone like Weiskopf would because he’s lived it — we lose way more than we win. If you don’t get comfortable with the fact that we are going to lose more than we win, then it’s going to be a very hard and unfulfilling career. That’s why I always talk about taking the small wins.
GW: Like at the Masters.
Rory: Yeah. I had a crap start at the Masters and shot myself out of it. But leaving there Sunday night, finishing fifth and shooting three rounds in the 60s to come back, I was proud of myself for that. Obviously, I was kicking myself that I didn’t get off to the greatest start, but I made the most of the situation I was in. I don’t see that as a bad thing. If that’s the perception, that’s totally fine. I care what the people around me think and they know more about how I feel and how I want to make the most out of this career I have.
I certainly don’t feel as if I’m done. I’m 31 years old and I’ve got at least the next half of my career still to go. I don’t feel like I’m that far away. I’d be way more concerned if I’m missing cuts, but I haven’t missed a cut in over a year. Maybe with the level of golf I want to play that’s not something to shout about, but it shows it’s nearly there.
GW: Have you set goals yet for ’21?
Rory: No, not yet. I think the goal I’d want to set for next year is more of a mental thing. I have to anticipate the fact that next year could be very similar to this year, with no crowds and little atmosphere. Handling that and making sure I’m ready to face what it’s going to be like. I’ve already started to work on things in my game. Playing with DJ the first couple of days at Augusta sort of highlighted a couple of things for me, what he did so well and I wasn’t really able to do.
GW: Such as?
Rory: It’s not going to be like this every week, because Augusta’s greens were so soft, but I had a terrible time trying to control my distance to back pins, trying to take spin off the ball. DJ is hitting these little shots and they’re stopping by the pin and I’m trying to take yardage off. They’re pitching on the number but they’re spinning back 25 feet, you know? The stats highlight that. I think I finished 2nd in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee, I finished 3rd in Strokes Gained: Around the Green and 10th in Strokes Gained: Putting at Augusta, but I finished dead last in Strokes Gained: Approach of anyone that made the cut. That just highlights, ‘OK, that’s what you need to work on.’ And that’s been a similar story for 2020. My iron play was good up until the break and then it wasn’t at the same level when we came back.
GW: Next year marks the first time a major championship will return to a course where you won — the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. That in itself marks the passage of time in a career, but what is the difference between the player you were when you won in 2012 and the player you are now?
Rory: A few more gray hairs! And they’re a bit shorter than they used to be. That run in 2012 when I won at Kiawah came off the back of not a lot of great golf. I missed the cut at the U.S. Open at Olympic, I barely made the cut at the Open. I was missing cuts. I had a great year in 2012, but people don’t remember there were quite a few struggles in the middle of the year. I got a top 5 in Akron the week before, got a bit of confidence and went and won Kiawah by eight. It was probably a bit more feast and famine in my game back then. I strive for this consistency in my game over the past few years, and I think I’ve found that. It’s not as if the bad is very bad. It gets me by. And the good is always in there.
I can produce that explosive golf I’ve always had. The difference is that the lows definitely aren’t as low, but the highs I haven’t been able to reach in the biggest weeks. And you have to play your best golf to win major championships, you have to be 100% on your game.
GW: A few random topics. What did you make of the alliance announced last week between the PGA Tour and the European Tour?
Rory: I liked it. Golf needs to be more cohesive, we all need to be pulling in the same direction. If this alliance can be done in the right way I think it provides a better pathway for Europeans to get on the PGA Tour. I can’t see any negatives with it. I obviously saw a lot of negatives in the other proposal put to the European Tour by Raine Group and Premier Golf League. I felt like I was one of the players who could see this objectively because I still have a long runway in my career and, you know, I’m going to make money regardless.
What is better for the game? I can’t see how a big part of the top level of golf being controlled by a private equity group is good for the game. I just can’t see how that works. I’m totally behind what happened. There’s still a lot of details to be hashed out, but it’s a massive step in the right direction.
GW: Keeping it random, where would you most like to go play golf for fun that you haven’t been?
Rory: Tara Iti in New Zealand looks really cool. If we’re keeping it closer to home, Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links look so cool, really different to what you’d normally get here.
GW: On the distance debate, are you in favor of a rollback of golf equipment?
Rory: It depends what you mean by a rollback of golf equipment. In terms of the golf ball, if there was a time for that to be nipped in the bud it was when the ProV1 came out. The ProV1 completely changed the game and we’re 20 years down that line. It’s too hard to undo 20 years of work, research and development. I can see putting some more regulation on what the ball can do. At this point, I’d like to see management of where we are and not have it be a complete free-for-all. But we’re too far down the road I think to roll anything back.
There is something beautiful in our game that everyone is governed by the same set of rules, but where technology has come to I like the idea of bifurcation, because the golf that I play and the golf you play — no offense — are completely different. [Laughs] You know what I mean? For 99% of golfers out there, golf courses aren’t too short. The ball doesn’t go too far for 99% of golfers. So I would be in favor of a set of parameters for the pros and another one for the amateurs.
GW: Looking further afield, are you still planning to compete in the Olympics next summer?
Rory: I’m still committed to play. It’s not ideal in terms of the golfing calendar, but I missed Rio and I think it will be a great experience. It looks like it will be me and Shane [Lowry] on the team. I get on great with Shane, I get on great with Neil Manchip, the team manager. I’m looking forward to that, so hopefully all is well and we can do it. Looking back on my career, if I didn’t do it once I’d regret it.
GW: Last question: What were the best and worst moments of the year for you?
Rory: The best moment of the year for me was welcoming our first child into the world. [McIlroy’s wife, Erica, gave birth to Poppy Kennedy on August 31]. The worst moment was probably trying to change her first diaper. [Laughs]