PGA Championship: The conundrum that is Rory McIlroy's career
Has Rory McIlroy missed the chance to not just be great, but be one of the all-time greats?
The question posed to Rory McIlroy was fairly benign.
When you get away from golf now, what do you do to try and switch off and forget about it?
McIlroy has spent much of the last year as the face of the PGA Tour's fight against the challenge of LIV Golf. He was a driving force behind some of the Tour's recent changes, most notably the 17 "elevated events" the Tour has designated in order to get the best players in the world together more often. Increased purses and fines for missing these events were put in place in order to ensure the top players would show up.
But after a brutal Masters in April where McIlroy missed the cut, he opted to skip the RBC Heritage, one of the Tour's 17 elevated events. He said he needed a break from the game, a $3 million fine be damned.
This is the backstory to the question asked Tuesday as McIlroy preps for the 2023 PGA Championship, which tees off Thursday in upstate New York.
What do you really like doing?
For eight seconds, McIlroy stood quietly behind a podium, thinking, before finally answering.
"I don't know, actually," he said. "I don't know."
He eventually got around to explaining that he's always had "good balance" in his life, that he's got other interests that "keep me occupied and busy. There's no shortage of that."
He just didn't share what those interests are.
It's become a rite of passage for going on a decade now to analyze where McIlroy's head is with each upcoming major. That's because despite all his talent, all the wins around the world, the popularity, the appearances atop the world rankings, McIlroy hasn't won a major championship since 2014 — a nine-year winless stretch in the prime of his career that's seen him go from a 25-year-old, four-time major winner to a now 34-year-old four-time major winner.
After winning the PGA Championship in 2014 to join Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to collect that many by that age, Nicklaus declared McIlroy "has an opportunity to win 15 or 20 majors or whatever he wants to do if he wants to keep playing." Now though, it's not a question of how many majors McIlroy will win, but if and when he'll win another one.
This is sort of the conundrum of McIlroy's career. Four major victories will put him in the Hall of Fame the day he's eligible. But if that's where he tops out, is his career somewhat of a disappointment?
"Like, if I don't win another tournament for the rest of my career, I still see my career as a success," McIlroy said Tuesday. "I still stand up here as a successful person in my eyes."
There is no questioning that. None. He is one of the 10 to 15 best golfers to ever play the game. But has he missed the chance to not just be great, but be one of the all-time greats?
Thursday presents opportunity No. 32 to get off the schneid of only four majors. Per BetMGM, he is once again a favorite, behind only world No. 1 Jon Rahm and No. 2 Scottie Scheffler.
"Less expectations," McIlroy said when asked about his mental game. "Just sort of trying to sort of be in a good spot with taking what comes and not thinking about things too much, not getting ahead of myself."
A win this weekend would change the entire narrative around McIlroy. Anything less, he'll be facing the same questions again in a couple of weeks in Los Angeles, where the U.S. Open will be in June. Fair or not, those are the stakes for him now.