PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Rory McIlroy now gets to sample the PGA Tour’s version of a golf tournament set to a social setting.
McIlroy is making his debut in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he couldn’t have picked a better year. Good weather has been the norm more than the exception in recent years on the Monterey Peninsula, and this week the forecast is nothing short of glorious.
It matches his outlook on the year.
McIlroy is using words like “optimistic” and “rejuvenated,” and for good reason. He is coming off a forgettable year of a lingering rib injury that kept him out of golf for seven weeks early in the year, five weeks in the late spring, and kept him winless for the first time since 2008.
“I feel like there’s nothing in my way,” McIlroy said. “There’s nothing stopping me from playing a pretty full schedule.”
He sounds as though he can’t wait to get going, especially after his start in the Middle East portion of the European Tour schedule when he tied for third in Abu Dhabi and lost a lead on the back nine in finishing second to Li Haotong in Dubai.
But he starts his road to the Masters at a tournament that doesn’t move all that quickly.
McIlroy is used to that.
He has played the Dunhill Links on the European Tour seven times, and there’s really not a big difference except for the heritage (Pebble dates to 1937), the weather and the quality of restaurants. Both feature pro-ams with celebrities, corporate titans and other VIPs. The Dunhill arguably gets a nod with the golf courses – St. Andrews and Carnoustie, along with Kingsbarns.
In both cases, McIlroy is playing with his father, Gerry.
But to ask him for what differences he has noticed between the two pro-ams, McIlroy based his answer not on the golf courses or the vibe, but how he felt compared with the last time he was at the Dunhill Links.
That was his final tournament before a three-month break from golf, his chance to let injuries fully heal and his mind fully recharge. McIlroy tied for 63rd, his worst finish in seven appearances. And then he was gone.
“I’m feeling a lot different in myself because I feel like it’s the start of something and not the end of something,” he said. “I was just sort of ready to call it quits for the year after the Dunhill. But with how dejected and wanting to get away from it I was then, to how rejuvenated and optimistic I am now, it feels a lot different that way.”
McIlroy had such an start-and-stop year in 2017 that when asked who played more golf, McIlroy or his father, the answer was obvious by his smile.
“Him,” he said.
Gerry McIlroy spends most of his day at Seminole Golf Club in Florida, not far from where his son and daughter-in-law live. It’s only fitting that the McIlroys are playing the opening three rounds at Spyglass Hill, Monterey Peninsula and Pebble Beach with Phil Mickelson. Lefty’s partner is Jimmy Dunne, the club president at Seminole. No need for introductions.
The AT&T makes wise exceptions on pairings, allowing McIlroy to play with his father as only one example. Why wouldn’t any tournament want the four-time major champion, former No. 1 player in the world and a player who still looks to be one victory away from zooming back to where he belongs near the very top of golf?
“It’s a tournament that I’ve always watched and I’ve always thought one day it would be really cool to play with my dad, and fortunately we were able to get him in and play,” McIlroy said. “And we’ve played the last three days and it’s been a lot of fun and just hope he hasn’t tired himself out.”
That led to another question. If he could come back in another life, would he rather be Gerry McIlroy or Rory McIlroy?
“It would probably be Gerry McIlroy post-50,” McIlroy said. “Because the first 50 years of his life were a little tougher, working three jobs and trying to raise me. But yeah, Gerry McIlroy post-50 is pretty good.”
And now he sets off to be the Rory McIlroy of old, whose graceful blend of power and balance leads so many to believe that he’s the man to beat when he’s on his game.
“He’s a guy that’s not afraid of going low and lapping the field,” Jason Day said, who finished eight shots behind when McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open. “He’s not afraid, which is how champions think.”
Looming is the Masters in two months, the major McIlroy lacks for the career Grand Slam. McIlroy has ramped up his schedule ahead of Augusta National, with six tournaments on his schedule between now and then.
There’s a lot to make him excited. Winning would be even better.
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