Rory McIlroy is the top-ranked player at world no. 3 in the PGA Tour’s 2015-16 season opener at the Frys.com Open this week. Wait, it’s a new season already? Yep, it’s been an entire two weeks since the last one wrapped up at the Tour Championship, but the PGA Tour is back at it again.
Usually, bold-faced names like McIlroy would not be playing in the fall, especially since he still has six weeks left in the European Tour’s season, which culminates with the finale to the Race to Dubai in mid-November. McIlroy is basically making this start because of a deal that was struck in 2012.
At that time, he was among eight players who competed in a non-sanctioned money grab event in Turkey called the Turkish Airlines World Golf Final. PGA Tour players are required to ask for a “release” to play in conflicting tournaments, which Commissioner Tim Finchem granted, but not without a little quid pro quo. In exchange for letting them play in Turkey, the eight players were required to play in the Frys.com Open at least once in the following three years.
The other seven players were Tiger Woods, Lee Westwood, Charl Schwartzel, Justin Rose, Hunter Mahan, Webb Simpson and Matt Kuchar. Woods was expected to play this week and officially committed before he withdrew the following week after enduring back surgery, so it’s unclear if he gets a pass or will be asked to fulfill the obligation in the future. Mahan, Westwood and Kuchar already paid their debts, but with this being the last of the three years specified in the deal, McIlroy has shown up to compete in a tournament that he probably wouldn’t have played. Rose, Simpson and Schwartzel are in the same boat.
Surprisingly, McIlroy wasn’t asked in his press conference about the situation (which is probably for the best because that would have been a tad awkward). And he naturally said all the right things and tried his best to sound excited to tee it up Thursday morning.
“I’m happy to be here,” said McIlroy on Wednesday at Silverado in Napa. “Obviously this is the first time I’ve been here, but it’s the first time I’m able to play not just here — I’m going to play in China, the HSBC later on in the year, get a bit of a start on the PGA Tour.
“It seems like any time I come back to the PGA Tour in February a lot of guys have played eight, ten events already and I am sort of trying to play catchup. So hopefully I’ll get my PGA Tour off to a good start here. Excited to be here.”
McIlroy, who traveled from Northern Ireland, is looking at the glass half full, per usual.
“I think for most guys it probably would be hard, but I took a couple months off in the middle of last season,” said McIlroy when asked about the scheduling and lack of an offseason. “I guess coming back at the PGA (Championship) for me was a start of a new season, anyway, so it’s sort of been like two mini seasons a little bit.
“This is sort of a continuation of that. Even though it’s the new PGA Tour season, I feel like I’m in the middle of a nice little run to the end of the year. I guess for a lot of guys, even the guys that played a full PGA Tour schedule last season and then played the Presidents Cup last week and they’re coming here, it’s a lot of golf.
“But as I said, I haven’t played as much as those guys, so I’m happy to be playing and happy to play quite a bit until the end of the year.”
McIlroy missed a few months in the middle of the summer — including the Open Championship — due to a freak injury during a kickabout with his mates, which obviously was a major setback. While he is kicking off a new season, he still has the chance to salvage one that’s still yet to finish.
“I want to try and win the Race to Dubai over in Europe,” said McIlroy. “I have three tournaments left to try and clinch that…
“Since I’ve come back from the injury, I’ve had a couple good finishes, but not really been in contention. So I want to get back in contention, have chances to win golf tournaments. That’s really my focus until the end of the year. I’ve got four opportunities to do that from now until Dubai.”