Rory McIlroy: “I’ve been too judgemental… LIV Golf exposed the PGA Tour’s flaws”

Rory McIlroy admits he’s been too judgemental of players joining LIV Golf and now accepts the Saudi-backed Tour.

In an exclusive and wide-ranging interview with the Stick to Football podcast, brought to you by Sky Bet, the four-time Major champ revealed he’s never received an offer to join LIV as he covered a huge range of topics, including his hopes of winning at Augusta, the pressure on sponsors and Jon Rahm’s controversial move.

Rory McIlroy with Jamie Carragher, Gary Neville and Tyrrell Hatton.

McIlroy, who makes his first start of 2024 at this week’s Dubai Invitational on the DP World Tour, has been a huge critic of LIV and its players and has himself come in for criticism from a former Ryder Cup teammate. He joined former footballers Gary Neville, Ian Wright, Roy Keane, and Jamie Carragher, for a deep and thrilling hour-long conversation.

Here are the highlights:

I was maybe a little judgmental of the guys who went to LIV Golf at the start, and I think it was a bit of a mistake on my part because I now realize that not everyone is in my position or in Tiger Woods’ position. We all turn professional to make a living playing the sports that we do, and I think that’s what I realized over the last two years. I can’t judge people for making that decision, so if I regret anything, it was probably being too judgmental at the start.

I’ve gone through the last two years with this altruistic approach where I’ve looked at the world the way I’ve wanted to see it. Ultimately, you can say what you want and do what you want, but at the end of the day, you’re not going to be able to change people’s minds. You’re never going to make them decide based on what you say. I wouldn’t say I’ve lost the fight against LIV, but I’ve just accepted the fact that this is part of our sport now.

I feel like there was a way to do it where it wasn’t going to be a massive disruptor to the game, and that’s another thing for me. It’s created a massive upheaval in professional golf which is sad to see. Some people have taken one side and some people have taken another, and golf is a small enough sport, it’s not like football where you’ve got billions of fans, so if you start dividing the eyeballs in professional golf, it’s not good for anyone.

Golf has always been built on meritocracy. You shoot the scores, rise up the ranks and you get rewarded accordingly. I think what LIV has done, it’s exposed the flaws in the system of what golf has, because we’re all supposed to be independent contractors and we can pick and choose what tournaments we want to play. But I think what LIV and the Saudis have exposed is that you’re asking for millions of dollars to sponsor these events, and you’re not able to guarantee to the sponsors that the players are going to show up. I can’t believe the PGA Tour has done so well for so long. 

The LIV Golf merger still hangs in the balance

Competition is good to help improve the sport of golf overall, but the PGA Tour competing with LIV and the Saudi money is completely unsustainable. You’re never going to win a fight if you’re going money for money because we’ve seen that in other sports where no one is spending money like the Saudis.It put the PGA Tour in a position where they had to spend a lot of money that put them on a path that was unsustainable and now you’re seeing some sponsors are pulling out because the Tour is asking for so much money and the sponsors can’t afford it – they’re asking sponsors to pay $20-$25 million to sponsor an event but they’re not seeing the value in it as they can’t guarantee the top 50 guys will be playing, so they won’t give them the money.

I’ve come to realize that if you’ve got people or a sovereign wealth fund wanting to spend money in your sport, ultimately that’s a good thing, but you want them to spend it the right way and spend it on things that are important to the game. Instead of giving someone $100 million, why don’t you put $50 million into a grassroots program for the R&A or the USGA so that you can help to grow the game, and not spend it trying to buy talent. I think that would be a better way to spend the money.

Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy share a laugh during a practice round at the US Open.

Most things are cool with the players who have transferred to LIV. The one thing that’s bothered me is that we’ve all grown up, playing on the European Tour or PGA Tour, and that’s given us a platform to turn into who we are, giving us the profile and everything. So, when people then jump to LIV and start talking crap about where they’ve come from, that is what bothers me because they wouldn’t be in this position if they didn’t have the career they’ve had so far. It’s like when you move clubs in football. It might get frustrating, and people move on, but you’re hopefully going to appreciate what the previous club did for you. That is the thing that bothers me sometimes with some of these guys that have jumped. They’ve just started talking crap about where they’ve come from, and it’s not a great look.

I can understand why some golfers have gone over to LIV. At the end of the day, we’re professional golfers and we play to make a living and make money, so I understand it. Especially some of these guys that were on the back end of their careers. I don’t begrudge anyone for going and taking the money and doing something different but don’t try to burn the place down on your way out. That is my attitude towards it because some people are happy playing in the existing structure and that’s totally fine, too. But I think it’s just created this division that will hopefully stop soon because I think it’s the best thing for golf too.

Jon Rahm has become the world's highest-paid athlete by joining LIV Golf for $450m.

I think at this point with the whole framework agreement and the merger news in June, it has legitimized what LIV was trying to do, which then made it easier for guys to jump over to LIV Golf. Jon Rahm hasn’t got any of the heat for going like the first guys got for going. Jon is a smart guy and I think he sees things coming together at some point so he’s thinking that he’ll take the upfront money, which is his prerogative, and if things come together, he’ll play LIV for a year then come back to play on the Tour and play some team golf.

I thought it was a smart business move from Jon – it’s opportunistic. I think he sees that things will come back together and he’s in a lucky position. There’s not one person that wouldn’t want him on our Ryder Cup team because of how good he is, so he was in a great position where there wasn’t a ton of risk involved for him to go. I’ve got no problem with him going if that’s what he wants to do and he thinks that’s the right decision for him and his family. Who am I to say any different at this point?

Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy.

I’ve never had an offer from LIV Golf personally. I didn’t engage with it when they came to me and I think at this point I’ve set my stall out. The numbers are unbelievable, and we’ve seen the stuff that’s happening in football and F1, so they’re getting into sport. They’re getting the World Cup in 2034, so they’re making a huge splash in the entire world of sport. It’s no different than what the UAE have done in the past.

Whenever I dreamed of becoming a professional golfer, it was all about winning trophies and winning Major championships. This happens in all sports, but to me, I’m sick of all the money talk in golf because the fans don’t care about it. They want to watch good golf and watch people compete against each other. The fans don’t care if you’re making this or this guy is on $200,000 a week, it just doesn’t resonate to them.

For the last two years, I’ve been trying to fight the good fight and I’ve played well, but it’s not my job to fight against LIV. At the end of the day, my job is to go out there and try to shoot the lowest score possible.

I met Yasir Al-Rumayyan at the end of last year in Dubai and said, ‘What do you want to do?’ We had a good chat. He loves the game and he wants to do certain things – he thinks the team element in golf can really take off and build franchise value in some of these teams. I understood some of it. When I got back to America at the start of 2023, I was on the board of the PGA Tour and told them that someone must talk to this guy.

There was a plan put in place that one of the board members would try and develop a relationship with him, to see if we could try and figure something out and all move forward together. I knew that there were conversations being had, but I didn’t know that it would happen so quickly. Then obviously on June 6th, the framework agreement was announced – a lot of the players were angered by it because they were completely blindsided by it.

His Excellency Yasir Al-Rumayyan is PIF Governor, which has joined forces with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour.

I knew it was a very intimate group of people [discussing the proposal] – it was the Commissioner of the PGA Tour, Yasir, and two board members. I knew there were conversations being had. They met in April, and they got this agreement done in June so it happened very quickly. The PGA Tour were telling all their players that these are the bad guys, coming to take over our Tour, and then two months later, they did a deal with them!

I resigned [from the PGA Tour Policy Board], but it was more because it was taking up too much of my time. I just want to get back to being a golfer, playing golf and trying to win those tournaments that I dreamed about winning as a kid. I hope everyone comes back together. There are guys on both sides that don’t want it to happen for certain reasons. The LIV guys don’t really want to come back and play the PGA Tour because they don’t feel like they’ve been treated very well. Some of the PGA Tour guys don’t want to come back together because they don’t want to see those guys. People at this point need to put their egos and feelings aside and come back together and we all move forward. That would be the best thing for golf.

Rory McIlroy would like to see LIV become like the Indian Premier League.

What I would love LIV to turn into is almost like the IPL (Indian Premier League) of golf (an idea shared by Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston in his Today’s Golfer column). The IPL in cricket, they take two months during the calendar. They have four weeks in May and four weeks in November, and you go and do this team stuff. It’s a bit different, and it’s a different format. If they were to do something like that, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that sounds like fun because you’re at least working within the ecosystem’.

Rory McIlroy was the leading points scorer at the 2023 Ryder Cup..

I love match play. Everyone sees how much I get into the Ryder Cup, I love that side of it and as I’ve got older and advanced in my career, I’ve become more competitive. Golf gives me the ability to be competitive at something and I really enjoy that part of it.

I’m physically exhausted after the Ryder Cup because we play 36 holes on Friday, 36 on Saturday, and then on the last day there is such a quick turnaround. [In Rome], we got back to the hotel at 9pm from the golf course on Friday night, and the alarm went off at 4am to get back to the course. Tommy [Fleetwood] and I were the first foursome off at 7:30am. I like to get to the course three hours before I play, to do my preparation and warmups so I don’t feel rushed. By Saturday night I’m so happy to get a lie in.

Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry share a laugh at the Ryder Cup in Rome.

I got back into the team room [after the spat on the 18th green with Joe LaCava and Patrick Cantlay in Rome] and Shane Lowry was giving us an incredible, motivational talk and as he’s speaking, I’m getting angrier and angrier about what happened and that riled me up to what occurred in the car park afterwards. As a competitor and a golfer, I have nothing but respect for Patrick Cantlay – he’s an amazing player. I lost it, calling people names, and things happened that I regret. I used some language in front of people that should never hear that and I’m sitting in the car afterwards going, ‘I probably shouldn’t have done that’. But we shook hands and made up and had a beer together on the Sunday night – everything was fine.

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods have become close friends.

Tiger Woods was my hero growing up in golf, and we forged a good relationship. Sometimes, people say you don’t want to meet your heroes, but he’s been really good to me over the years and really good with my family – he’s been great with all of us. I feel like sometimes he sees me as a little brother in a way, and he can relate to me, and he is trying to help me out. I’ve been over to his house a couple of times, and he’ll show me shots, and I feel like I’m really lucky that I’ve been able to learn those things from him and the fact he’s so open with me and wants to share – I don’t feel like he’s like that with everyone.

I’d love to win the Masters – it’s the only Major that I haven’t won. St Andrews is where the game started, but Augusta has become this cathedral of golf in some way, and all the greats of the game have won there in the past. It seems like it gets bigger and bigger every year, and it’s the first Major of the year too – it’s more hyped up.

Rory McIlroy looked set to win the 2011 Masters until disaster struck on the back nine on Sunday.

At Augusta, I sometimes do things I wouldn’t normally do because of what it is and the pressure, and I’m completely open about that – I think I need to embrace it rather than shutting away from it. Every time you go back, you learn something different – I’ve had my chances at Augusta before, and every year I take that little bit and try and put it into the next year. After 14 or 15 years of it, you think it’s time to get this done.

Rory McIlroy still hopes to win the Masters and complete the career grand slam.

I would be comfortable with not [winning The Masters], but I would look back with a hint of regret. I’d still look back at my career and be happy with what I’ve done because I never expected to get as far as I have. You get to go back to the Champions Dinner every Tuesday night at Augusta if you win [the Masters], and there are little things like that I’d miss if I wasn’t to do it.

I went through my stats with my team last week and I’ve got this trend over the last few years where in May, June, July, and August, that’s my best stretch of golf. So, if we can just get that into April when the Masters starts, we’ll be good. Playing a bit more and being sharper will help, so I’m going to try and play a few more tournaments in the build-up to Augusta.

About the Author

Rob Jerram is Today's Golfer's Digital Editor.

Rob Jerram – Digital Editor

Rob specializes in the DP World Tour, PGA Tour, LIV Golf, and the Ryder Cup, spending large chunks of his days reading about, writing about, and watching the tours each month.

He’s passionate about the equipment used by professional golfers and is also a font of knowledge when it comes to golf balls, golf trolleys, and golf bags, testing thousands down the years.

Rob uses a Callaway Paradym driverTaylorMade M5 5-woodTaylorMade P790 driving ironCallaway Paradym irons (4-AW), TaylorMade MG3 wedges (52º, 58º), Odyssey Tri-Hot 5k Double Wide putter, and Callaway Chrome Soft X golf ball.

You can email Rob or get in touch with him on X.

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