The first time I heard the Irishman sound like a real leader, and not just another cardboard professional golfer, was during a pre-tournament press conference in 2017 at Arnie’s in Orlando.
The question related to the former Muirfield Golf Club in Scotland – faced with losing its place in the British Open rotation – which eventually relented and allowed women to become members. And rather than serving up the usual platitudes that thrive behind the country club guardhouse, McIlroy had an honest and emotional take himself.
He focused on the fact that it took several centuries and several member ballots for the women’s measure to pass. “Nowadays where you have women who are like the leaders of certain industries and women who are heads of state and can’t join a golf course?” he tsk-tsked. “I mean, it’s obscene. It’s ridiculous.”
No one else on the PGA Tour used pointing language. In fact, they often act here as if having an opinion is a two-stroke penalty.
There would be times when McIlroy’s thoughts would irritate some voters, such as in 2020 when he said that while playing golf with Donald Trump a few years earlier was a pleasant enough experience, he would never do it again. And then asked how the then-president was handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
But consistent since then, today and forever, one of the first traits of being a leader is not being afraid to lead.
It’s the trait that currently makes McIlroy the most valuable presence on the PGA Tour.
With the arrival of the LIV Golf Tour, no player stood up and dismissed him as outright as McIlroy.
Declaring a year ago, when LIV was just an embryonic bad idea, that he wanted to be “on the right side of history”, McIlroy has always resisted the idea of taking money from a company backed by Saudi Arabia. No one has expressed his loyalty to the PGA Tour more eloquently than he.
And in doing so, he managed to strike a respectful, non-judgmental tone.
As in the press room on Wednesday, when he was asked why he had chosen to be the spokesperson for this group of committed and conservative independents.
“I care deeply about our sport. I care about his story. I care about his legacy. I care about the integrity of the game. There are a lot of players here who are like-minded and share the same opinions,” he said. “I felt it was right.”
Like during the post-round interview on Thursday, when asked how he played with Cam Smith, who is famous for stepping out of the clubhouse door on his way to LIV Golf. (McIlroy even advised the young Australian after his British Open victory, trying to sell him a future on the PGA Tour).
“Cam and I get along really well,” McIlroy said. “Always have. I keep saying that no matter what decisions someone makes or choices someone makes, that doesn’t make them a bad person. Does that make me disagree with them? Sure that it is. But I disagree with a lot of people I love and love.
There was so much pride evident in the way McIlroy shrugged off the awkward start and saved his round on Thursday. No one should have been surprised. No one should be in a hurry to send it back. It’s who he is.