A Major Problem

Rory McIlroy’s coming up short at the PGA, and the way he reacted, served as a reminder that golf is out of balance  

By Michael Bamberger

TULSA, Okla. — Rory McIlroy is a two-time winner of the tournament that wrapped up here on Sunday night. You know, the PGA Championship. One of the four Grand Slam events. He’s one of the most beloved players in the game and maybe it’s most insightful talker. He played one of the best rounds of the day on Sunday at Southern Hills. He made four straight birdies on the front nine and shot 68, 2 under.

And he was pissed.

That’s understandable. If he had played the back like he played the front (a huge if), he would have won the tournament. After running off those four straight birdies, he didn’t have another over the last 13 holes. You’d be shocked if he wasn’t pissed.

It’s what he did after signing his card that gives you some pause: He blew off all requests for interviews, TV and otherwise.

For starters, it’s immature for a player of his stature. He can do as he pleases, of course, and McIlroy almost always does talk, certainly in good times but very often in bad too. But on Sunday, at a major that you’ve won twice, where you can give insight into where you are with your game and what the players still playing will face? As the Nike marketing department has been saying for years, Just do it.

You can say that Nike made McIlroy rich, but really you made him rich. He has the talent, but you provide the purses and the endorsement deals and all the rest. The money spigot begins with your credit card.

But there’s something else that gives you much more pause, and this is it: When did not winning a major become such a big deal, and is it healthy?

In 1997.

And no.

Rory Mcilroy

Things are out of whack in professional men’s golf, and they have been for a while. Ever since Tiger Woods came on the scene a quarter-century ago, the elite player’s mindset can be captured in two mantras:

Majors, the majors, the majors;

Gotta win ’em, gotta win ’em, gotta win ’em.

Golf Channel and USA Today and Sports Illustrated (when it was a weekly bible) were co-conspirators in promoting this attitude, to say nothing of the many golf websites that have taken root this century. But Woods created the template.

We all know the names of the various prodigies who came up in Tiger’s wake, McIlroy (33, four majors) and Jon Rahm (27, one major) and Will Zalatoris (25, no majors) among them. By all available evidence, their notion of what constitutes a rich and full golfing life seems to come right out of the Tiger playbook. Woods would tell you he took a page from Jack Nicklaus. Tiger caught the tail end of Big Jack. The first tournament he watched on TV was Nicklaus winning the last of his 18 majors, the 1986 Masters. Rory was born three years later. So Jack didn’t beget Rory and Co. Tiger did.

Rory, engagingly, talks about his reading life now and again. For all we know, he’s reading the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who teaches that happiness does not come when you are seeking it. Maybe you have found this in your own life: It sneaks up on you when you least expect it.

All this emphasis on the majors — and I am as guilty as anyone who watches from the wrong side of the rope line — has created a lot of emotional upheaval.

This is easy for me to say, but by putting so much emphasis on four weeks a year, the golfer’s life, at least his professional life, is out of balance. How much would any of us like to play 25 times a year, cash checks anytime we play half decently, contend now and again and win on some of those occasions?

We’re all a product of the worlds in which we are raised. For Arnold Palmer, there was one major, the U.S. Open. All the other tournaments, and he played in hundreds of them, were just that. A chance to do the thing he loved to do.  

Part of the problem, of course, is Rory knows the drill: Since winning his fourth major at the the 2014 PGA Championship, McIlroy has played 28 majors without getting his fifth. He has had top-10 finishes in 15 of those events. That’s a nice problem to have, right? But the Sunday night questions, some of them, would have been some form of what’s wrong. And Rory doesn’t want to talk about what’s wrong. And he doesn’t know the answer anyhow. So off he goes.

This is a vicious cycle. I certainly don’t have the answer. Jiddu Krishnamurti might have the answer. McIlroy is most likely searching for the answer.

One thing we can all see is this: As he has become stronger and stronger through the years, he has started swinging harder and harder. His shots are more erratic. His scores are more erratic. Still, he has won 11 times since that PGA victory eight years ago. Guys win majors at almost the exact same ratio they win nonmajors. It’s all golf. Rory plays golf for a living. It’s all good. He knows it. Like any of us, he must just need a reminder, now and again.

By the way, his eighth-place finish here paid $436,000. A nice life, if you can get it. 

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at

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8 thoughts on “A Major Problem”

  1. This article is the journalistic equivalent of a child not getting their way and proceeding to throw the object nearest them. Whether it is golf, baseball, football, etc, the non-interview is common in sports but, especially when the “big game” is lost. So, Rory not wanting to talk is understandable, even for someone of his usually open and happy personality.

    As for laying blame to a single player for the focus on majors; I call bullshit.

    The majors are the pinnacle of golf and would be without Jack or Tiger. All those two did was create a new level of expectation for the most elite players. Is your implication that Rory is at that level? Do you believe every player is chasing Tiger in terms of accomplishment? Because, if that is the case, majors are one aspect of that chase, not the sole focus.

    Realistically, a loss at a major hurts more because of what it means. Rory did not speak to the press on Sunday because he just missed his shot at the win. But you failed to mention Masters Champion Scottie Sheffler slamming his clubs repeatedly into his bag after a bad shot. Additionally, in a field full of winners that lost, you would be hard-pressed to not find more situations where emotions manifested externally. It is the competitive spirit of people that are good enough to get into majors that causes that. In fact, if those situations did not occur, you would have to wonder if they cared at all about winning what is a considerably difficult tournament just to make the cut.

    If you hate competitive people and the effects of competition, you just may be in the wrong career.

  2. Guido Callaioli

    All that I can say is that Pereira was the winner of Southern Hills , buy the way . A semi-unknown player from Chile at the very top of a major … with most of the top players out of bounds . What do You think ???

  3. Maybe it was Arnold, with Bob Drum, who invented the modern majors but it was Big Jack who told us they were the primary measure of greatness. By the way, the idea that Jack started counting his majors in 1970 is embarrassing. Personally I’d say it’s time we scrapped them. When Hogan won the Open in ’53 no one, Hogan included, knew it was his ninth major. It didn’t matter. Sadly the emphasis on majors diminishes the real majors and enhances the fake ones. It has made the more important tournaments less important and the less important more important. When Cink won at Turnberry he was thrilled, not to have won the Open but to have won a major! Anyway it was good that your usual enthusiasm for Rory was more subdued here. Despite his affectation and his conceit – to say nothing of his aptness to curse – golf writers have been kind to him. It’s hard to imagine Big Jack resorting to off colour language, on the record, in the company of Al Laney or Furman Bisher. Still, it was an interesting piece. Thank you.

  4. Thanks Michael! Now that I’ve found you on FPC with Alan, been reading and listening. You are spot on with Rory. Far and away has as much if not more talent than anyone. Almost always one of THE nicest and kindest athletes. I saw that run on Sunday when he had the bounce in his step and was enjoying playing. The stubbed chip and the missed birdie on the following hole derailed him but… didn’t know if you noticed this but I did. He STOPPED SMILING and started grinding and trying TOO hard. Yes, he has a right to hold himself to high esteem but if you do, you face the media afterward like Mito did and tell them the truth. Love your writing and insight! Brian

  5. Can’t disagree more with this one. Golf has ALWAYS been about the Majors and hopefully always will be. Rory, for all he has done, has every right to be pissed and we should understand. For some reason this “new” media seems to think they are entitled to everyone’s comments all the time regardless of circumstances. Good for Rory for being pissed, he let a huge opportunity get away. I have no doubt that will propel him to continue to strive to be the best. Hopefully at Augusta next April.

  6. Clearly an interesting take on Roro’s exit sans chitchat, but BamBam when did the media actually start thinking it was entitled to the players. It has always been a balance, a give-&-take relationship where sometimes the mindset of the player is not what a reporter wants. Would you be any happier if you got one or two word answers to your insensitive questions, I doubt that you would provide a caring perspective based on what you’ve presented here.
    You’re a great writer, McIlroy will talk again, let’s get over it…

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