Tiger Woods may forever be the Face of Golf. It's not unreasonable to think that the most iconic athlete of the last quarter-century will not have a successor capable of filling his Nikes. A mythical figure even as he was dominating the PGA Tour, he now hangs ever-present over the horizon like the morning fog of an early-morning round, popping in a couple times per year to walk the grounds of his most iconic victories. He remains vital in maintaining the status quo, actively fighting against the encroachment of LIV Golf after turning down an obscene amount of money to defect. Yet the Tour needs someone out there every week serving as an avatar for all that's great about the game, wielding skill, guile, and affability with courage of convictions.
Rory McIlroy has answered that call. Out of necessity, yes, but also out of duty. With great success comes great responsibility. He is uniquely suited to lead fields on weekends and lead his colleagues during the week. As he capped a remarkable come-from-behind victory yesterday to capture his unprecedented third Tour crown, there was no mistaking that the baton is on loan from Woods. There is finally an icon with the gravitas and temerity to grab it with both hands and sprint into the future.
NBC's Dan Hicks appropriately captured the mountaintop moment on the broadcast. “McIlroy has been the face of the TOUR with this tumultuous season off the course that has been well-documented," he said. "To be in this position is an incredible feat.”
Watch any tournament and you cannot help but notice that the four-time major winner is the overwhelming fan favorite. Come victory or crushing defeat, the masses will ride with him. His supportive army could only watch as he surrendered a final round lead to Cam Smith at the Open. They could only wish he'd started his absurd Sunday push at Augusta this past April a bit sooner. They never know exactly what they're going to get from him when the final leaderboard is revealed yet they know he will be a significant player, writing his own chapters of history either as the main character or in a supporting role.
Amid a frenzy of change and off-the-field drama, McIlroy remained steady, finishing in the Top 10 in all four majors this season and capturing $18 million on its culminating days with a performance for the ages. One could say they always saw this coming. They'd be lying.
Because when McIlroy was challenging Woods for podiums, he was not universally loved. His win share ate into Tiger's. There was the inevitable backlash to early triumph because the most human of impulses is to build up and then delight in the teardown. His rocketship soared to unfathomable heights by the age of 25 before drifting a bit off-course. Perhaps there won't be another major in his future. Perhaps the drought extends past nine years to 10 to 15.
Perhaps it won't matter.
This wasn't the career arc anyone was expecting. Yet perhaps it's more meaningful in the big picture that the kid from Northern Ireland has grown into a man capable of piloting the best golf league in the world toward a more productive future. He's someone the Tour and its fans can be proud of, win or lose. Someone who finds time in the haze of euphoria to do something like seek out Scottie Scheffler's family and say that he's the one who deserved the moment.
If golf's civil war is to continue — and there's no reason to think tensions will tail off any time soon — cool-headed generals who can rally troops and lead from the front are of vital importance. And yes, my personal proclivities are no secret. I want the PGA Tour to thrive and grow and hope LIV falters on its own hubris. With clear eyes, though, consider which product you'd prefer. The one with McIlroy and his cadre of superstars fighting tooth and nail for treasured hardware or whatever is taking place at Donald Trump's fifth-best resort any given weekend?
It's fair to say that LIV landed a few body blows early on. It's also fair to say that McIlroy bowed his back and carried a heavy weight on his shoulders like a true champion. No one in the sport is better at erasing a deficit and instilling fear when he's chasing.
So perhaps he's not the face of golf and won't ever be. Being its profile in courage, grit, and perseverance is a nice consolation prize. And one he's welcomed with open arms.