The one-way, 14-hour flights to the Middle East got to be a drag. So, too, did the constant demands for Rory McIlroy off the golf course.
There is a price to be paid for being one of only four players in PGA Tour history to capture four major titles before the age of 25, and in the aftermath attempt to keep constituencies happy on both sides of the Atlantic.
McIlroy did just about everything asked of him for the better part of a decade. As he approaches his 30th birthday in May, the kid from Holywood in Northern Ireland is making truly adult decisions about the next stretch of his career.
It’s the reason why McIlroy is at Torrey Pines this week to compete in his first Farmers Insurance Open.
In the past, the 29-year-old began his year on the European Tour’s “Desert Swing” in Abu Dhabi and Dubai (though he was injured for it last season). This season, after getting married to American Erica Stoll in 2017, selling one home in Florida and settling into a new one there, McIlroy is committed to playing more events in America and fewer in Europe.
He competed for the first time in the Sentry Tournament of Champions three weeks ago, contending before tying for fourth.
After San Diego, McIlroy will play in the Genesis Open on Feb. 14-17 at Riviera Country Club, where he’s appeared twice (2016 and ’18), tying for 20th each time. Then it’s on to the WGC-Mexico Championship and the Florida Swing, where McIlroy will defend his title in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“I’m happy with my decision. I’m happy to be over here and playing,” McIlroy said Wednesday after his pro-am round on the Torrey Pines South Course, on which he’ll begin the tournament Thursday grouped with Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott.
“Anything that makes my life and my performances better, I’m going to do that.”
When McIlroy announced on the eve of September’s Ryder Cup that he’d play fewer tournaments on the European Tour in 2019, the shock registered was akin to him having used a dirt bike to spin doughnuts on the auld sod at St. Andrews.
A former world No. 1, McIlroy is Europe’s most marketable star and draw, even with Englishman Justin Rose’s rise to his current No. 1 world ranking and Italian Francesco Molinari’s triumph in the 2018 British Open.
McIlroy also is enormously popular in the States. In his first appearance at Riviera in 2016, dozens of children stood outside the doors of the clubhouse chanting “Ror-y! Ror-y!”
European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley was reportedly so concerned about McIlroy that he flew to Northern Ireland last month to meet with the golfer, though the effort didn’t change his mind much.
Other than the four majors and the World Golf Championships events, McIlroy needs only to play in four more European Tour tournaments to retain full membership. But he’s not yet saying that’s even a priority right now.
In talking about his decision Wednesday, McIlroy recalled a conversation he had with Englishman Paul Casey at the end of last season.
“He obviously played well at the start of the season, won Tampa,” McIlroy said. “As soon as he traveled back across the Atlantic to play at Wentworth (in England), he felt like it knocked him back a few weeks. He didn’t play well at the U.S. Open because of it; he didn’t play well going into the summer; and he felt it was because of the back and forth travel.”
McIlroy’s goal remains the same as any of the top-ranked players: win majors. He hasn’t done that since his 2014 PGA Championship triumph capped an incredible run of four major wins in four years. He has five PGA Tour victories since then, but still hasn’t pulled on a green jacket in the Masters that would complete a career Grand Slam.
There is a nagging sense on the tour that he is underachieving, considering the high bar he set early. In the last seven times McIlroy has played in the final group on Sunday, he hasn’t been able to convert that to lifting a trophy.
Have the failures chipped away at his confidence?
“I’m committed to the journey of getting to the point where that’s not a conversation anymore,” McIlroy said. “Just keep putting myself in those positions. I’m obviously playing good enough golf to get myself there.”
Winless in the last 16 majors, McIlroy has eight top-10s over that stretch, including three straight top-fives in the British Open. He’s studied other players’ careers for perspective.
“If you look at Phil (Mickelson), Phil’s won more majors than me (five), and he didn’t win his first one until he was in his 30s (33, to be exact). I’ve had success early and it just takes a little bit of time to figure it out again.”
In setting his early-season schedule, McIlroy said he had the choice to play at Torrey Pines or in the Waste Management Phoenix Open next week. He’d seen plenty of Torrey on the Farmers Open broadcasts and was intrigued; the upcoming 2021 U.S. Open here probably being another factor.
“It does play different than I thought it was going to play,” McIlroy noted, adding, “I like the design of [the South] course. … It’s not just a brutal golf course from start to finish; it does give you opportunities to make amends for maybe some errant golf shots.”
McIlroy’s first chance to compete at Torrey Pines could have come in the 2008 U.S. Open, but he didn’t make it through a qualifier in England at the age of 19.
This isn’t his first time on the property of San Diego’s premier municipal courses. McIlroy played in a couple of Junior World tournaments when he was a grade-schooler, recalling that he scored a hole-in-one at the par-3 Presidio Golf Course in Old Town that has since fallen into disrepair.
Opening ceremonies for Junior World are held at Torrey Pines, and the keynote speaker for the event in 2000 was Tiger Woods’ father, Earl. The Irish kid with the mop of curly hair got up the nerve to pose for a photo with American golf royalty.