I was sitting on The Golf Channel set on Tuesday when Rory McIlroy came into the interview room to do his pre-U.S. Open walk through. Pre-championship interviews are usually about as interesting as watching Mike Milbury talk about hockey. Actually, Milbury isn’t so much boring as annoying.
Most golfers are pretty boring. Actually, most athletes are pretty boring – especially in interview rooms. They don’t want to say anything that’s going to light up Twitter or the internet. They want everyone – especially sponsors and potential sponsors – to love them.
McIlroy is a notable exception to that rule. He will actually sit and think about a question before he answers it. He is honest – almost to a fault.
Tuesday, he was asked about the U.S. Golf Association’s decision earlier that day to cut down the thick fescue wide of several fairways. This came after a number of players had whined about it, saying it was almost impossible to hack your way out if your golf ball happened to find it. Whining is in the DNA of most golfers – especially when they get to a U.S. Open site. ANY U.S. Open site. The golf course is too hard, it’s unfair, no one will have a chance to break par. It goes on and on.
There are occasional voices of reason. Almost 20 years ago, I walked with Fred Couples and Tom Watson during a practice round prior to the 1998 Open at the Olympic Club. Already the screaming could be heard coming from the locker room and the range about fairways that wouldn’t hold golf balls and pin positions that were impossible. (As it turned out, one pin position – the 18th on Friday – was a disaster).
Couples looked at Watson, shrugged in his Couples-like way and said, “You know what I don’t understand, Tommy? Why is it so bad to have one tournament a year where even-par is a good score? Do we have to shoot 20-under every week?”
Watson nodded and said, “If I offered you even par for 72 holes right now, would you take it?”
“In a heartbeat,” Couples said.
Lee Janzen won the championship—shooting even par.
The best players – the smartest players – understand that the U.S. Open is supposed to be hard. The whiners usually whine their way home sometime on Friday.
Which is why, if I hadn’t been tethered to the desk on the TV set, I would have given McIlroy a standing ovation when he was asked about the fescue.
“What?” he said. “Really? They did that? Why?”
He shook his head and spread his arms apart. “The fairways are this wide,” he said. “They’re like 50 or 60 yards in the landing areas on most holes. They’re the widest I’ve ever seen at a U.S. Open and they’re cutting down the fescue?”
He shook his head. “These are supposed to be the best 156 players in the world. If you can’t hit the fairway or come close to it, you’re SUPPOSED to be penalized! Hit it in there, it’s like a hazard – it just isn’t marked with a red line.”
Later, Jordan Spieth said much the same thing, but much more politely. Last year, when I was researching my book on the Ryder Cup (The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup, available for pre-order now), Spieth told me how much he admired McIlroy’s honesty in front of the media.
“I tend to go PC at times,” he said. “I try to be honest, but sometimes I hold back because, well, it’s the smart thing to do.” He smiled. “Rory doesn’t hold back. He just tells you what he thinks.”
What’s sad about that is that McIroy and other athletes who speak their minds – whether the subject is fescue or racism – are frequently criticized and a lot of that criticism comes from my brethren in the media. We always complain about athletes who say nothing and then we turn around and attack them when they say something.
There was no better example than at last year’s Open Championship at Troon, when McIlroy was asked at his pre-tournament press conference about his decision to skip the Olympics. Rory wasn’t exactly the only player to decide to stay away from Rio. The top four players in the world: Dustin Johnson, Spieth, Jason Day and Rory had all decided not to go and 21 players in all passed. Zika was an issue and so was the ridiculous schedule put together to squeeze the Olympics in during the week when the PGA Championship would normally be played.
Spieth had come in earlier in the day and had said all the “PC,” things about how tough the decision had been and how much he hoped to play in the Olympics in 2020. Someone asked McIlroy if he didn’t feel an obligation to ‘help grow the game’ by playing in the Olympics. The question – justifiably – made McIlroy angry.
“No, that’s not my job,” he said. “My job is to play good golf and handle myself well in public and try to use my public platform to do charity work and contribute in those ways.”
There was a follow-up: “Will you watch the Olympics on TV?”
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll probably watch the sports that matter…like track-and-field and swimming.”
Now the room was in an uproar. McIlroy was clearly dissing golf in the Olympics. Trust me, he wasn’t the only player who felt that way, he was just the only player willing to say it. The McIlroy-bashing started almost before he left the podium.
Brandel Chamblee, who I consider a friend and who I think is as good on television talking about golf as anybody out there, led the Greek Chorus. “I think, years from now, when Rory McIlroy looks back on his golf career he may regret that press conference more than anything he’s ever done,” Brandel said.
I immediately fired off a text to Brandel. “First, Rory’s right,” he said. “It is NOT his job to grow the game while he’s still playing. Second, if you aren’t a golf geek like we are, you aren’t watching Olympic golf. And third, do you really think Rory’s going to regret what he just said more than shooting 80 and blowing a four-shot lead at Augusta five years ago—among other things?”
Brandel’s answer was to the point: “Got me with the third one,” he said.
A few days later, Jack Nicklaus – God Bless Him – said Rory was right, that he’d never thought about ‘growing the game’ until he retired. Rory later told me he probably should have said, “I’ll watch the traditional Olympic sports,” instead of, “the sports that matter.”
“But, to tell you the truth,” he added. “I was pissed.”
He was right to be pissed. The question about growing the game was flat out stupid. And then Rory went and told people what he really thought and the next thing you knew he was being attacked – even by someone as smart as Chamblee.
“I hope,” Rory said that night when we talked about it, “I never get to the point where I get tired of being criticized for telling the truth and just decide not to do it anymore.”
I hope not too because sports needs more guys like McIlroy – honest, opinionated and smart. I hope he wins the Open this week and then tells everyone, “The fescue didn’t bother me at all.”
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and The Story of an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,” has spent eight months on The New York Times hardcover and paperback bestseller lists. His new book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” will be published in October and is available for pre-sale online now. He is also the author of, “Last Shot,” winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award in the young adult category for mystery writing.