So much for Rory McIlroy getting shot of the distractions. His first day in the office after quitting the PGA Tour policy board this week started with Sachin Tendulkar accompanying him down the first fairway, then featured his ball wedged in a woman’s lap, and finished with a par that was anything but routine as he was twice handed huge breaks from the water.
McIlroy has previously joked that “things just seem to happen to me” and the opening round of this season-ending DP World Tour Championship was a case in point.
If the sight of McIlroy in deep conversation with Tendulkar – the Indian cricket legend who is a DP World ambassador – moments before he teed off chasing the $3 million (£2,414,250) first prize was strange enough, then when he pushed his tee-shot on the par-three 13th, it became positively surreal.
McIlroy walked up and found a female fan sitting on the ground, petrified to move, with his ball resting in her lap. McIlroy pretended to go for the shot anyway, before taking the free drop. You know the scene. Hilarity all round.
It led to a second successive bogey, however, and having been three under through seven holes was, in his own words, “hanging on”, having not played competitively for six weeks after the Ryder Cup.
He made a fine par save on the 17th from the greenside bunker, but then watched in disgust as his drive up the par-five 18th inexorably headed towards the creek that splits the fairway.
There was a sizeable roar when his ball hit a rock and flew high into the sky before landing safe, but still on the pine straw. McIlroy then pulled his second and once again it was aqua-bound. This time, it ricocheted from the hazard onto the bridge and inched its benevolent way on to grass. McIlroy was able to escape with a five.
“Never mind my round, that hole probably summed up my career – very lucky,” McIlroy said, with a smirk. “But I’m still only four back [of leaders Nicolai Hojgaard, Matthieu Pavon and Julien Guerrier] and I can certainly do better. Hopefully there’s something to build on.”
In the circumstances he was satisfied with a one-under 71 and after declining to comment on Wednesday when the news of his resignation as player-director emerged, he was this time happy to talk.
Yet while admitting that the commitment was “too much” and that he wanted to be more selfish and concentrate on his golf game, he denied that he was worried where the current merger negotiations with the $700 billion Saudi Public Investment Fund would lead.
The world No 2 has been LIV Golf’s most vocal critic and when the shock ‘framework agreement’ between LIV’s backers was announced in June, he declared that he felt “like the sacrificial lamb”. Yet, five months on, if there remains residual bitterness over being betrayed, he was hiding it valiantly.
“I’ve just got a lot going on in my life between my golf, my family, my growing investment portfolio and my involvement in TGL [the indoor golf league he is soon launching with Tiger Woods] that something had to give,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I could commit the time and the energy. I don’t mind being busy, but I like being busy doing my own stuff.”
McIlroy said his role as PGA Tour mouthpiece changed after the bombshell alliance was unveiled. “I had stepped up and spoke out about something I believed in,” he said. “The landscape changed on June 6. It was never in my control, but from then on I was playing a lesser part, because of the decisions that were made.”
McIlroy dismissed the notion that the exhaustive time spent – one board meeting regarding LIV lasted seven hours at the beginning of a tournament week – had hampered his game and claimed that he had actually benefited from the experience.
“I don’t think it affected me at all,” he said. “I enjoyed it. It was an education. I was in the room with some very smart people. I was appreciative of the opportunity. Hopefully that will stand me in good stead with whatever I decide to do in the future.”
Yet he did concede that as he sets out on his 2024 campaign – on a quest to avoid a full decade without a major – that there is no room on the schedule to be the statesman.
“As we go into next year and I’m getting ramped up for the Masters I just couldn’t see me putting the time and energy into it,” he said. “It’s a big decision and if I’m not prepared going into those meetings it’s better someone else takes my place.
“But I do think the process is in good hands. At the end of the day, the PGA Tour agreed to let a sixth player on the policy board, so the players are the ones who are going to control the future anyway. I sort of felt comfortable enough to step down.”
All of which will cheer up Jay Monahan no end. The beleaguered PGA Tour commissioner is expected to arrive here at the Earth Course over the weekend – which, intriguingly, will be his first visit to the Middle East – and must have been dreading showing up with the criticisms of McIlroy ringing in the air.
Of course, the golf world is still seeking answers and very few – if any – are forthcoming. So if Monahan wants an escape then the Earth Course and the DP World Tour Championship can provide light entertainment. McIlroy’s round on Thursday certainly did.