BROOKLINE, Mass. — For six months, Rory McIlroy, now in his 13th year on the PGA Tour and a four-time major champion, has been the most outspoken critic of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf circuit rattling the professional ranks.
On Tuesday, days after LIV Golf held its inaugural tournament outside London, McIlroy’s denigration of the rival league grew louder, and he found an ally in Jon Rahm, the defending champion at this week’s U.S. Open at the Country Club outside Boston. Referring to his victory at the PGA Tour’s Canadian Open last week and comparing it with LIV Golf’s event, McIlroy said: “Last week in Canada, LIV will never have that. Last week meant something. What they were doing over there meant nothing.”
McIlroy has long stressed that the LIV Golf series, whose major shareholder is the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia and which pays golfers hefty appearance fees with guarantees that everyone in the field will be awarded a substantial payout, is more of an exhibition than a competition. At the midpoint of nearly every PGA Tour event, for example, half the golfers in the field — those with the highest scores — are eliminated from the tournament and sent away without any monetary award.
That led Rahm on Tuesday to describe LIV Golf’s first event as “not a golf tournament,” because it lacks cuts.
He added: “I want to play against the best in the world in a format that’s been going on for a hundred years. That’s what I want to see. Yeah, money is great, but I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons. I play for the love of the game, and I want to play against the best in the world.”
McIlroy was unsparing on the same topic, especially when discussing the few younger players, such as Bryson DeChambeau, 28, who have chosen LIV Golf over the PGA Tour. Most of the big names committed to LIV are considerably older and have been lured by upfront contracts valued at $150 million or more. Phil Mickelson, 51, reportedly received close to $200 million to sign on.
“I understand, because a lot of these guys are in their late 40s, or in Phil’s case, early 50s,” McIlroy, a 33-year-old from Northern Ireland, said. “Yeah, I think everyone in this room, and they would say to you themselves, that their best days are behind them.
“That’s why I don’t understand it for the guys that are a similar age to me going over there because I would like to believe that my best days are still ahead of me. And I think theirs are, too. So that’s where it feels like you’re taking the easy way out.”
Asked why he has been so impassioned in his allegiance to the PGA Tour, McIlroy answered: “I just think it’s the right thing to do.”
He then mentioned the hundreds of millions of dollars that PGA Tour events have raised for myriad charities and added: “That is a massive legacy and something that I don’t think people talk enough about.”
It is also true that McIlroy’s assessment of the LIV Golf series has been mistaken in the past. In February, he called the venture “dead in the water.” When asked about that misjudgment on Tuesday, even McIlroy’s response was meant to be something of a punch in the nose to those who turned away from the PGA Tour.
“I guess I took a lot of players’ statements at face value,” he said. “I guess that’s what I got wrong. You had people committed to the PGA Tour — that’s the statements that were put out. People that went back on that. I took them at their word, and I was wrong.”
Finally, McIlroy was asked if he had lost respect for Mickelson, the most renowned player to defect. His response was telling for how it began.
“As a golfer? No,” McIlroy said.
He continued: “As a golfer, I have the utmost respect for Phil. I’ve been disappointed with how he has went about what he has done.”
About 90 minutes after McIlroy addressed reporters, Brooks Koepka, who relishes his role as a contrarian, had a different opinion about the PGA Tour-LIV Golf rift.
“I’m trying to focus on the U.S. Open, man,” Koepka said with a grimace. “I legitimately don’t get it. I’m tired of the conversations. I’m tired of all this stuff.”
Koepka complained that news-media coverage was “throwing this black cloud over the U.S. Open.”
“The more legs you give it,” Koepka said, “the more you keep talking about it.”