Rory McIlroy admitted it was a relief to get back to playing golf amid the tension and uncertainty sparked by the US PGA Tour’s bombshell deal to team up with the Saudi backers of LIV Golf.
“It was good,” McIlroy said after firing a one-under par 71 in the first round of the Canadian Open, where the Northern Ireland star is the two-time defending champion.
McIlroy was one of the staunchest critics of the breakaway LIV Golf, which lured top US PGA Tour and DP World Tour stars with signing bonuses and record purses for 54-hole no-cut events that broke with the game’s traditions.
When the PGA Tour responded to LIV with a new category of top-tier events aimed at showcasing its marquee players, McIlroy worked to calm fears among lower ranked players that they would be squeezed out — and a contentious players meeting on Tuesday in Toronto showed that the new deal has only stirred up those concerns.
“The most uncomfortable I’ve felt in the last 12 months was my press conference yesterday,” McIlroy said of facing a barrage of questions about when he learned of the deal, what he thought of it and whether he felt PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan had dealt fairly with tour members.
Although McIlroy acknowledged this week that he still “hates” LIV and hopes players who defected continue to face consequences, he reiterated on Thursday that the global game is a business and he didn’t necessarily expect altruism from the tour.
“My job is playing golf at the end of the day,” he said. “So the more that I can focus on that and focus on the birdies and the bogeys instead of the stuff that has happened in the board room I’ll be much happier.”
Monahan reportedly faced calls to resign this week from players and was branded a hypocrite not only by tour members but also by families of 9/11 attack survivors, who view Saudi Arabia as a key contributor to the 2001 attacks in which hijackers flew planes into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York and other targets, leaving thousands dead.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
On Wednesday, US congressman John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, introduced legislation that would end the tax loophole that the PGA Tour and some other pro sports league exploit to avoid paying federal corporate income tax.
“Saudi Arabia cannot be allowed to sports wash its government’s horrific human rights abuses and the 2018 murder of American-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi by taking over the PGA,” Garamendi said in a statement.
Monahan has touted the deal as an end to expensive and potentially damaging litigation between the warring factions and a new era of harmony in the global game.
But with players feeling blindsided by the decision and details of the new “collectively owned, for profit entity” still to be unveiled, tensions remain high.
McIlroy said he and playing partner Justin Rose decided to put the topic aside during their round — although both had plenty of questions and opinions.
“The headline seems like it’s just going to be this very smooth transition and ‘Come on back, boys, it’s all done now,’” said England’s Rose, who launched his tournament with a three-under 69. “I don’t think that’s the case.
“Obviously, we’re looking for a harmonious world of golf,” Rose added. “This is what I think this is designed to achieve. That’s not going to be overnight.
Rose said he didn’t think LIV golfers such as Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson should be “outcasts forever,” but added that a straight welcome back is “not going to sit well with anybody out here necessarily.”