John Feinstein: Rory McIlroy Is Thoughtful, Doesn’t Duck Questions

Rory McIlroy showed up to talk to the media on Tuesday—his first appearance since The Masters. In the interim, he got married, went on a honeymoon and signed a lucrative new contract with an equipment company.

McIlroy is, as the British like to say, ‘good value,’ in a press conference. He’s thoughtful, he doesn’t duck questions and he’s honest—sometimes to the point where his honesty gets him into trouble.

“The thing about Rory is, he never goes PC (politically correct),” Jordan Spieth likes to say. “We all go PC sometimes, especially when we know an honest answer might cause problems. Rory doesn’t do that.”

The best example of that came last summer when McIlroy—like Spieth, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and 17 others who had qualified—decided to skip the Olympics. There were all sorts of reasons for this: the Zika scare—especially acute for young men still planning on having children; the ridiculous schedule created by the Olympics and the fact that, for most golfers, the Olympics weren’t that big a deal. None of them had been around in 1904, the last time golf was part of the Olympics.

In his pre-tournament press conference at The British Open—three weeks before the Olympics began—someone asked McIlroy if he didn’t feel an obligation to play in The Games to help, ‘grow the game of golf.’

The question annoyed McIlroy. “It’s not my job to grow the game,” he said—definitely not a PC answer. He then went on to explain that he thought the best way for him to grow the game was to play well and conduct himself well. Jack Nicklaus—among others—backed him up on that.

“I never thought about growing the game while I was playing,” he said. “I thought about it when I stopped playing.”

McIlroy went on to say he would watch the Olympics, but would probably focus on, “the sports that matter—track, swimming…”

In the insular world of golf he might as well have said, “why does everyone always make a big deal about this Palmer guy.”

Brandel Chamblee, my colleague at Golf Channel and, arguably, the smartest guy talking about golf on TV, said that when McIlroy looked back on his career years from now, that press conference would be his biggest regret.

The minute I heard Brandel say that, I sent him a text: “You don’t think blowing a four-shot lead on Sunday at Augusta in ’11—among other things—will be a bigger regret than pissing some people off talking about the Olympics?” I wrote.

To his credit, Brandel wrote right back and said, “okay, maybe I went a little overboard.” Then he added, “I should remember that Rory’s your boy.”

Guilty. Rory is absolutely my boy. For years now I’ve joked that, if his first marriage doesn’t work out, he can marry my daughter Brigid, who is 19.

“Who wouldn’t want Rory for a son-in-law? said my friend John Hopkins, who has written eloquently on golf for The Times of London and The Global Golf Post for years.

I was reminded of this—yet again—after McIlroy’s Tuesday press conference. It’s a longstanding tradition in golf journalism that players will ‘scrum,’ with the print media after they finish talking at the podium during a press conference. This gives we ink-stained wretches the chance to ask questions someone might not want to answer with cameras all over the room or, if you can manage a question alone or in a smaller group, the chance to get an answer you don’t have to share with the world—until you write it.

The only golfer who consistently refused to ‘scrum,’ was Tiger Woods. The minute he finished a press conference, he bolted for the door, surrounded by his handlers and security. Every once in a while he’d paused at the door if a friendly voice shouted a question (ala reporters shouting questions at whomever is President) but standing around and chatting? Not happening.

Augusta National’s new interview room is so far removed from where the writers sit that there is zero chance to scrum. The joke during the Masters was that Woods had designed the room.

During Tuesday’s scrum, Karen Crouse, the outstanding golf writer for The New York Times, asked McIlroy how he felt watching Sergio Garcia win the Masters last month.

“I know you wanted to win yourself,” Karen said. “But how did you feel when Sergio won.”

Rory smiled for a moment. Then he said, “Honestly, I cried.”

Yeah, he cried, in part because Garcia’s a friend, in part because he understood the struggles Garcia had been through before he finally won a major—EIGHTEEN YEARS after finishing second to Woods at the 1999 PGA–to finally remove that giant asterisk from his record.

How many athletes would readily admit they wept for joy seeing an opponent win? “I was happy for him,” is about the best you might hope to get out of most of them. McIlroy not only cried, but willingly admitted he cried. He didn’t bring it up, but when he was asked, he answered the question honestly.

You bet Rory’s my boy.

One more story. Three years ago, my wife, Christine and my then three-year-old daughter Jane, came with me to the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. They had no interest in seeing the golf, but Pinehurst is a sweet little town and the hotel had a nice swimming pool for Jane.

On Thursday night, we were having dinner in the little pub off the lobby of The Carolina Inn when Rory, his dad Gerry (who I greatly admire for the job he and Rory’s mom did raising Rory) and Rory’s longtime swing coach, Michael Bannon walked in. The place was packed. I thought the manager was going to have a heart attack when he saw Rory standing there and there wasn’t a table to be had in the whole place.

“No worries,” Gerry McIlroy said. “We’ll wait in the lobby. When you have a table, let us know.”

Rory walked over to our table to say hello and I introduced him to Christine and Jane. He walked around the table, got down on one knee so he could be at Jane’s eye-level and said, “So Jane, what did you do today?” he asked.

“Well, my mommy and I went swimming,” Jane explained. “And then we went shopping and I bought a new dress.”

Rory nodded as if this was fascinating. “Kinda wish I’d gone with you,” he said, having shot one-over-par that day.

“Well, if you want, you can go with us tomorrow,” Jane said, always happy to make a new friend.

“Don’t tempt me,” Rory said. “I just might do it.”

He chatted for a couple minutes and then left—a table had opened up. As he departed, I said to Christine: “So, maybe 20 years from now, when Jane’s old enough SHE can marry Rory.”

“Hell with that,” Chris said. “I’LL marry him.”

She was kidding…I think.

I hope Rory and Erica Stoll live happily every after. And I will continue to willingly admit my absolute bias where he’s concerned.

A few years ago, someone called my radio show claiming he had a question for me that was, “an absolute conundrum for you.”

“Okay,” I said. “Fire away.”

“Last match on Sunday at the Ryder Cup. Winning point at stake: Rory versus Tiger.”

Andrew Bogusch, my partner, started laughing before I could answer. “Are you kidding?” he said.

I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but, as Bogusch said, “Are you kidding?”

John Feinstein’s latest book is, “The Legends Club,–Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and the story of an epic college basketball rivalry,” which is currently on the New York Times sports bestseller list in paperback. His next non-fiction book, “The First Major—Inside the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—will be published in October. He is also the author of 11 kids mysteries, including ‘Last Shot,–A Final Four Mystery,’ which won the Edgar Allan Poe Award,” for mystery writing in the young Adult category.

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